University of Reading: Museum Exhibition Celebrates Reading Festival’s 50th Anniversary

Live music fans can explore the story of the first Reading Festival in a new exhibition by the Museums Partnership Reading.

The unique exhibition, ‘The 1971 READING FESTIVAL: For the First Time’ will launch on Thursday 26 August at Reading Museum, and marks 50 years since the first Reading Festival.

Launching to coincide with the return of this year’s Reading Festival, the exhibition tells the story of the very first festival through rare and unseen photographs, posters, ephemera, and unique items of rock memorabilia.

Kate Arnold-Forster, Director of The Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading said:

‘On behalf of Museums Partnership Reading, a partnership between the MERL and Reading Museum, I am delighted that we are presenting this exciting and timely celebration of Reading Festival’s first fifty years.

“Both looking back to the Festival’s beginnings and also marking the return of the Festival to the town, it has been a privilege to work closely with Festival Republic and young people from Reading on this exhibition highlighting Jill Furmanovsky’s curation of iconic images from 1970s.”

Reading Museum has enlisted rock photographer Jill Furmanovsky to curate the story. Jill’s career has spanned five decades, and she is responsible for some of the most enduring images in popular music history.

Jill and her team at have conducted exhaustive research to bring lost and hidden imagery of the first festival to light, for this not-to-be-missed exhibition.

The show will include previously unseen work by some of the most renowned exponents of the art of music photography, including Michael Putland and Ray Stevenson.

The exhibition is narrated by Record Collector magazine’s Ian Shirley. With his specialist knowledge of the history of pop music, Ian has delved into the archives and tracked down musicians and fans to share an enlivening account of the first festival.

Ian uncovers detail of its arrival in Reading, explores the unfolding of the event (despite the many challenges faced by its organisers) and reflects upon the legacy of the festival on the life and times of Reading in the early 1970s.

Ian, with his encyclopedic knowledge of vinyl, has also curated the music played in the Sir John Madejski gallery to evoke the sounds of the first festival.

The exhibition’s development has been complemented with an exciting programme of co-production led by local music charity, The Rock Academy. The Rock Academy has worked with Reading Museum’s Youth Panel and a group of young people to curate part of the exhibition looking at several of the most iconic festivals since 1971, taking items from Reading Museum’s collections as inspiration.

The exhibition is generously supported by Melvin Benn, Director of Festival Republic who has been organising Reading Festival for over 30 years. A visitor to the second Reading Festival in 1972, Benn remembers seeing headline act The Faces, fronted Rod Stewart:

“As a young lad, I was passionate about my music. I still am, but I could never have imagined that one day I would be responsible for staging the Reading Festival and its sister Leeds Festival which we’ve been running since 1989.

“It is lovely to look back on our history and see how we stay true to be a Festival all about presenting the very best music of today, alongside the top breakthrough acts for the future. This is not something that’s going to change.

“I am sure that, with Reading Museum, Jill Furmanovsky and Ian Shirley working together, this will be a wonderful exhibition to put a smile on visitor’s faces and be a brilliant showcase of our shared history. Reading will always be the home and birthplace of this legendary festival and this exhibition will do nothing but renew the determination to make it a smash hit every August bank holiday.”

Cllr David Stevens, Mayor of Reading, said:

“It is fascinating to see Reading Festival’s real history within Reading, with intrinsic links to our deeper past. It came to be in Reading as a result of the desire to celebrate the 850th anniversary of Reading Abbey, and as we reflect this year upon the legacy of 900 years of the abbey in our town, we have great pleasure and interest in looking back on fifty years of this incredible cultural and musical jamboree staged on our riverbanks.

“I am sure the exhibition will be of great interest to music fans of all ages. By giving a broader understanding of the social and historical context of Reading Festival, it will be of great appeal to the Museum’s wider audience too. As we emerge from the difficult challenges that the last 18 months has presented for Reading’s cultural life, we are sure this exhibition will be a great celebration of the festival, one of our town’s treasured cultural assets.”

Barbara Pendleton, wife of Harold Pendleton (who established the precursor of Reading Festival) and closest collaborator in the production of the early Reading Festivals, said:

“I am very proud of the Reading Festival. It is amazing to have been involved in the start of something that has had such a big influence on music and the town of Reading itself. Harold and I were privileged to have worked with so many great stars over the years. We made a tremendous number of friends and of course loved meeting and putting on the shows for the wonderful young people who came along. I wish this exhibition every success and I hope it draws a good crowd to come and see it.”

‘The 1971 READING FESTIVAL: For the First Time’ is free to view and runs from Thursday 26 August 2021 – Saturday 29 January 2022 in the Sir John Madejski Gallery, Reading Museum

The exhibition is part of Museums Partnership Reading, a collaborative, wide ranging programme of activities by Reading Museum and The Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, and supported by the Arts Council England’s National Portfolio Organisation programme. ‘The 1971 Reading Festival: For the first time’ is generously supported by Festival Republic.

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