Last Friday (10th March) saw the official opening of the Museum of English Rural Life, (MERL for short) Ladybird Books gallery. This was my second visit to the museum but I thought I should wait until after the official opening to offer readers of this blog a review.
What is the MERL and what has it got to do with Ladybird Books?
When the Ladybird Books factory and offices in Loughborough were closed down in 1999, numerous boxes of original Ladybird artwork were moved to London where they sat neglected in a dark corner for a number of years. Not all of the Ladybird artwork was in those boxes – but a great deal was. Eventually staff at Penguin sought a new home for this artwork and the University of Reading agreed to take it as one of their ‘Special Collections’. The artwork was still tucked away from general view in an archive - but now in Reading rather than London – and now at least it could be viewed on request.
However, from time to time items from the archive would be loaned to exhibitions and recent extremely successful such exhibitions (notably the one at Bexhill and The House of Illustration in London 2015) made apparent the ‘pulling-power’ of Ladybird.
Space was found for a dedicated and permanent Ladybird gallery within the MERL. And so it is this permanent Ladybird space that is being opened and celebrated.
So what will you see if you decide to visit?
The Ladybird gallery is small and awkwardly shaped so the organisers have had to be quite creative in planning how best to use the space. There are two walls of dedicated space and currently a large proportion of this is taken up with a cabinet featuring the brand new Penguin Random House ‘Ladybird Expert” artwork.
There are perhaps 10 more pieces of original vintage Ladybird artwork on the walls, a small number of other artefacts including an uncut sheet and a couple of information plaques. The most dominant feature of the gallery is the colourful “Wall of Books” – which to anyone who didn’t get to see the exhibition at Bexhill or the House of Illustration will certainly enjoy viewing.
If you have a cursory interest in Ladybird Books then this gallery will add to your enjoyment of a very interesting museum.
Now if you are aware of this event at all it may be because of the recent publicity that the Museum has successfully generated. This is a good thing.
In my opinion the not-so-good thing is the tendency towards exaggeration that characterises a number of the reports about the gallery.
Earlier this month The Guardian declared in a headline that an:
“Entire art gallery of Ladybird book covers is world first”
“You can view an entire art gallery of Ladybird Book covers at a museum in the UK”
The University of Reading’s own press release tells us that this will be:
“the first and only permanent exhibition of Ladybird Books artwork”
Now I am sure the MERL is blameless in all this reporting but some of this is a little misleading and unhelpful.
1) This is not the first permanent exhibition of Ladybird Books. The Charnwoood Musum in Loughborough, home of Ladybird, established a nice little permanent exhibition back in 2015. I believe too that their collection includes at least one piece of original Ladybird artwork. I phoned recently to check that the exhibition was indeed ‘permanent’ and it is.
2) The Guardian has got confused between artwork and book covers.
3) The term ‘an entire art gallery’ implies a dedicated building or wing. That’s not what you’ll find.
Now for my thoughts on what I saw.
a) The MERL makes a great visit. The rural life museum has something for everyone – even if old ploughs aren’t your thing then something else will be. It is bright and airy and well-displayed and not too big. It also has those indispensable assets: a café and a shop.
b) All the people that I have met at the MERL are friendly, helpful and dedicated.
c) The Ladybird gallery has lots of potential and is a good start. It will add to the enjoyment of many museum visitors.
d) It needs to articulate a little better to the casual visitor quite why there is a Ladybird Books gallery nestling among the ploughs and butter churns.
e) It needs, in my opinion, to make MUCH more use of the original artwork, and in the future I hope it will. With thousands of pieces being kept in storage it is more than a shame to have so few on display. There are quite a few poster-sized reproductions of the artwork. Why use precious space with a few reproductions when your USP is that you have access to masses of original artwork? Even allowing for the challenges of space there are countless other ways to exploit the archive that is the raison d'être of this gallery and to put on public view material that will bring pleasure to the many people who remember the books.
So all in all, a promising start.
If you visit Reading I'd recommend you visit the MERL and I hope you drop in to the Ladybird gallery. I’d like to hear what you think.