Glow Up! St Andrew’s Staircase Hall Redevelopment Project

Photograph looking down at people in the staircase hall

Showcasing collections thanks to the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvements Fund

This March, the University of Reading’s Museums and Special Collections Service (UMASCS) team have unveiled a redeveloped display space in the beautiful Victorian home of The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), once St Andrews Hall, on the University’s London Road campus. This historic space, which visitors pass through on the way to the reading room, has been transformed with a generous grant from DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund. In this blog, originally posted here, Dr Hannah Lyons, Curator of the University Art Collection, and Caroline Gould, Principal Archivist describe the transformational project and how it will improve awareness of and  access to the University’s collections

For the first time in twenty years, St Andrew’s Hall has been presented anew. Visitors – including University staff, students and the general public – can now discover books, archives and artworks from the Museum of English Rural Life’s Library and Archive, Special Collections and University Art Collections.

Thanks to improved and exciting new display areas, many of these objects can be seen for the first time, allowing our visitors to access and enjoy the University of Reading’s unique and expansive collections.

Black and white photograph of the staircase hall at St Andrews when it was used as a sitting room (1880-1939)
Staircase hall of St Andrew’s Hall, University College Reading when it was used as a sitting room (1880-1939). Taken by Dann-Lewis Photographers, 1856-c 1940, of Reading


Significant improvements to the space include a new, distinctive green wall colour, which has been inspired by the fascinating Arts and Crafts history of the St Andrew’s Hall.

Originally known as ‘East Thorpe’, the building was designed by the fashionable Victorian architect, Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905), as a family home for local businessman and biscuit-man, Alfred Palmer (1852-1936). Palmer commissioned Waterhouse to design and build an ‘up-market’ family home to showcase his wealth and success, and the new house was designed and built between 1880-1882. (You can now read about this part of the building’s history on the new panels in the corridor that leads from the Museum to the Staircase Hall.) Thankfully, the building retains a number of its original decorative Arts and Crafts-style features, including beautiful stained glass windows and intricate fireplace tiles designed by the highly imaginative artist, William De Morgan (1839-1917). As you can see, it is these vibrant and attractive fireplace tiles that have inspired the new wall colour – giving the Staircase Hall a recognisably ‘Victorian’ feel.

Fireplace in the staircase hall at The MERL with tiles designed by William De Morgan (1839-1917)
Fireplace in the staircase hall at The MERL with tiles designed by William De Morgan (1839-1917)

However, the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund has allowed us to change more than just our wall colour! Thanks to this grant, we can now store, care for and display our collections to twenty-first century museum and archive standards.


We have a brand new, permanent display case that allows visitors to see featured items from The MERL Library and Archives. The current selection includes the first minute book of the National Farmers Union dating from 23 June 1909 and a letter from Mary Ashton to her parents when evacuated to her Clacton in 1940. She reassures her parents in the letter that she arrived safely “without any accidents [like] falling out the train etc”. The display also features 2 periodicals Country Fair June 1958 and Landscape and Garden Spring 1937.

A large glass display case containing various archives and library items on shelves

A new lighting system has also been unveiled, which allows our visitors to see and appreciate our objects more clearly whilst also keeping these precious works safe from harmful levels of light exposure. These new lights means that there is greater freedom for our UMASCS Librarians, Archivists, Curators and Conservators to choose objects that may have not been suitable for display before, including sensitive works on paper that are too vulnerable to be on permanent display.

Photograph looking down at people in the staircase hall through the new circular central lighting feature
The new central lighting feature

For visitors who now want to spend longer enjoying the University of Reading collections, the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund has also ensured that we have enhanced our visitor accessibility and doubled the space available to us for temporary exhibitions. Opening the first floor balcony to visitors gives us the opportunity to showcase our University Art Collection, revealing the many paintings, prints and drawings that the University cares for . To celebrate, we have installed a new, temporary exhibition – A Break From Tradition – which examines modern, European drawings in the University Art Collection.

A visitor looking at a painting in the staircase hall

Finally, across the whole redeveloped Staircase Hall, signage and interpretation means that we can more meaningfully communicate information about our fascinating and varied collections. Visitors will be able to learn more about the objects on display, including the intriguing and sometimes surprising stories of how these collections found their way to the University of Reading…

So next time you’re heading to a meeting, or appointment in the Reading Room, at St Andrews Hall, why not take a look? We hope the collections on display will whet your appetite and inspire you to find out more about the University’s collections. Read on to find out a little more about what’s on display and what else you can discover behind the scenes…


Many visitors to the museum galleries are unaware of the extensive library and archive collections that are housed on the same site. Although some library and archives feature in the gallery displays, this doesn’t necessarily reflect breadth of the whole collection.

The MERL Library is the most important in the country for the study of the history of British agriculture, the countryside and rural society. The majority of the 50,000 volumes in our library are, unusually for University collections, open access. They include extensive runs of historically significant journals and a large number of rare books and specialist collections.

A person reading a large book between shelves in the MERL library

The MERL Archives consist of over 4.5k linear metres ranging from papers of individual farms to archives of major countryside organisations, and trade records. As well as over a million rural photographs and films and tens of thousands of engineering drawings, you can also find personal records and journals. To find out more and search the collections, visit their collections pages.

The Staircase Hall is also the hub for two other “Collections” based in the building: Special Collections and The University Art Collection. This project has allowed these collections to be visible for the first time on the site.


Special Collections incorporate two archives Designated by the Arts Council England as outstanding collections – The Archive of British Publishing and Printing and The Beckett Collection – as well as archives of 20 printing and publishing firms and retailers (including Ladybird Books, Mills and Boon, De La WH Smith. As well as over 80,000 volumes in our Rare Book Collection, we also hold notable writers’ archives, including a major collection relating to James Joyce and the Nancy Astor archive. Explore more on the Special Collections website.

Title Ulysses by James Joyce printed in capital letters on a faded blue background
On display in the new case, a first edition Original blue paper wrappers bound into new, contemporary binding signed by Fernand Hauttecoeur. Full ivory parchment over boards Printed for Sylvia Beach by Maurice Darantiere at Dijon, France


Spanning from the 16th century up to the present day, the University of Reading Art Collection includes paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and digital art. The history of the collection is intimately tied up with that of the University during the 20th and 21st centuries. Artworks were acquired for a variety of reasons, including for teaching, research, and decoration. Many pieces were gifted or bought by staff, students and alumni of Reading’s pioneering School of Art.


The refurbished Staircase Hall was officially opened at a Student Showcase event at the beginning of March 2024, where guests, including the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading, were able to to enjoy the displays in the new spaces. These included the current third year Museum Studies students’ exhibition ‘Folklore and Magic‘ as well as displays showcasing collaborative projects with students from departments across the University.

A photo from above showing people discussing displays in the new staircase hall
The Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Van de Noort talks to students about their exhibition in the new staircase hall
DCMS and Wolfson Foundation logos

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