My internship at Reading museum certainly went with a bang. It was busy, fast paced and eventful. I had the privilege to be involved with community engagement on the Reading Abbey Revealed project during the run up to and immediately after the reopening of the Reading Abbey Ruins which had been closed for nearly 10 years! Having grown up in Reading I jumped at the chance to be involved in this important project. Like others who had grown up in the town I had been to the Abbey, wandered round and remarked how old it looked and how beautiful it was (in a romantic ruined kind of way). In the previous absence of interpretation at the site I knew very little of its history or importance like many others.
Many people think there is only shopping, tech companies and the annual festival in Reading. History, culture and heritage are not usually the first thing that springs to mind. I anticipated that the Abbey Quarter project would be a chance to put Reading’s rich history centre stage for all to see. It would enable residents to forge a new local and personal identity. This pride in our history would help put Reading firmly on the tourist map, hopefully bringing income and more jobs to our town and its local people. The spotlight on Reading had been firmly switched on!
I was employed to oversee the Abbey on Wheels programme for the summer. Volunteers and I went to community festivals and groups to share the information on the recent conservation and the Abbey’s history. A popular part was object handling using museum loan boxes including objects found in and around the Abbey Quarter. A virtual reality headset showed 360 degree views of the Abbey ruins during the conservation work. We also offered free tile decorating activity inspired by real abbey tiles that people could handle.
For some residents it broke down the barriers that may exist stopping them from travelling into town and visiting the museum to find out about the Abbey Quarter themselves. For other residents it reminded them that after almost ten years of closure, work was going on behind the scenes to get the Abbey open. Talking to long term Reading residents, the Abbey had almost slipped from memory, hidden away behind office blocks. More recent Reading residents including many children, had no idea it even existed. The excitement in the run up to the event was palpable and it rose to a crescendo the closer we got to the 16 June. It was covered on the BBC, ITV, newspapers, radio station social media countdowns, ads on Reading Buses… it was everywhere and the people of Reading were waiting with baited breath.
We spent much of May and June promoting the Reading Abbey Revealed reopening event n 16 June 2018. What an event it was - epic, explosive and in your face! It was an event worthy of a historic site of this magnitude and a town like Reading. Over 18,000 visitors descended on the Abbey Quarter to be a part of the Abbey reopening and the annual Water Fest event. Reading town centre shook with the explosions of 17th century musket fire and visitors were greeted by the sights and sounds of a medieval village. Performances and historical characters entertained the crowds in the Abbey and the Forbury whilst the annual splendour of Water Fest entertained people on Chestnut Walk with stalls stretching all the way to the Riverside Museum. It was an exhausting, exhilarating fantastical day and an honour to be a part of it alongside the museum staff and volunteers in our red t-shirts.
On my travels with Abbey on Wheels, there was a tangible sense of pride in many that Reading had been a nationally and internationally important town. As we spoke to people who had been at the reopening, they enthusiastically expressed how amazing it was. There has been a definite switch in the way people speak about the Abbey as ‘our Abbey’.
Do you know, I have been saying for weeks that the council could have spent the money on loads of other things we need in the town. Now I have heard all this, I am sorry I thought that. I am amazed how important it was.Whitley Wood resident
There is a real sense of community ownership coupled with protective retaliation online to anyone questions whether the project had been worthwhile. Residents are excited that they can now take their children and grandchildren to enjoy the Abbey Quarter in the same way that their parents and grandparents had taken them. Reading definitely did good!