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50 years of history: the objects that made the OU

Fifty years ago, Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee made history. In April 1969, The Open University received its Royal Charter and their vision of a University that would open up education for all was finally brought to life.

Since those exciting first years, the OU’s Archive team have kept a record of almost everything the OU has ever taught and some key archives that form part of its rich history. To help share as much history as possible, the OU Digital Archive was launched in 2016, with hundreds of items now available to view online – including thousands of audio-visual items, images and video clips.

Uncovering treasures from the Archive

As guardians of this treasure trove, we asked the University Archive team Ruth Cammies, Amanda Saladine, Anita McDonald and Matthew Taylor to share some of their personal favourites from the Archive:

The Royal Charter

This key document in OU history only comes out on special occasions and is always handled with care and a bit of nervousness! See a clip of the original Charter Ceremony on the OU Story online exhibition

Photograph of a document written on parchment with a max seal

On 23rd April 1969 Her Majesty The Queen approved the creation of the Royal Charter of The Open University

Jennie Lee’s ministerial red box

Jennie Lee played such a vital role in bringing the OU vision to life. That’s why we’re proud to have the red box that she used to carry her documents when she was a Member of Parliament. This box would have seen it all! To us, it symbolises the radical thinking and changes that were going on when the OU was first founded. You can explore more about Jennie Lee and her life in the upcoming Lochgelly Centre exhibition.

Red bag with royal seal on

Red boxes, or ministerial boxes, are used by ministers in the British government to carry government documents.


This is one of those funny stories which makes OU staff and visitors giggle. It’s said that 100 pairs of carpet slippers were purchased for staff in the 1970s to help protect the carpets in the new buildings from the mud of the construction work on campus. Learn more about the building of the OU’s campus at Milton Keynes at

A pair of blue and white checked mens carpet slippers

In 1969 members staff were encouraged to wear slippers to save the new carpets from the mud of the construction site 

McArthur Microscope

This award-winning microscope was included in the first Science Home Experiment Kit for OU foundation course S100. For us the microscope represents the innovative way that the OU has taught higher education at a distance over 50 years. Find out more about the microscope at

Small folding microscope

The portable microscope was sent to STEM students as part of their home experiment kits

Graduation ceremony recordings

The archive holds a selection of video recordings of OU graduation ceremonies – from the first ceremony in 1973 to this year’s ceremonies. This inspirational collection is a celebration of our students’ success over the years. Browse the recent ceremonies at

large all of OU graduates

The first OU ceremony held at Alexandra Palace in London and broadcast live on the BBC

As custodians of the OU Archive, we are hugely proud that the first fifty years of our University has been documented so well and that we are able to share this with more people than ever before. We look forward to sharing more of the OU’s unique history.

Discover hundreds of interesting objects, broadcasts and stories on the Online Digital Archive.

And introducing a new addition – the Tree of Learning

As well as housing the University Archive, the Betty Boothroyd Library Building is now also home to the stunning Tree of Learning sculpture, which is on show for all to enjoy. The incredible 22-foot sculpture, created to mark the OU’s 50th Anniversary, includes over 7,000 gold-coloured shields to honour our incredible OU family and all the generous donors who have supported the OU’s 50th Anniversary Scholarships Fund.

Heart shaped tree with gold pendents as leaves

The Tree of Learning raised more then £200,000 for the Carer’s Scholarships Fund.


About the author

Carly Sumner is a Digital Content Officer in the Development Office at The Open University. She loves telling stories and has spent the past 10 years writing about everything from nappy bags to balance transfers. She holds a BA (Hons) in Journalism and Media Studies from Coventry University. When she’s not writing, Carly enjoys reading, sharing good food with great people, and all things colourful.

About Author

Our guest authors have been invited to write articles for OU News to share their views, news and activity from around The Open University.

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