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Museum of English Rural Life Review in Museums Journal

Tony Butler separates the wheat from the chaff at this outstanding redevelopment of a museum about rural life

The English have a complicated relationship with the countryside. As the country developed into the first industrial nation, rural dwellers flocked to cities and towns – their new homes would have a yard with just enough room for one pig.  In today’s urbanised UK less than 1% of the workforce is employed in agriculture, yet one of the most popular TV shows is Countryfile, a magazine programme covering rural issues.

Given such a conflicted stance, it’s perhaps fitting that the Museum of English Rural Life (Merl) should be in the heart of a town. The museum grew from Reading University’s School of Agriculture Research Unit, and is still housed in the university. Many museums in the countryside explore rural history through reconstructed buildings, live interpretation and big objects such as farm machinery. Merl – in keeping with its confined urban location within the university – takes a thoughtful academic view, but one that doesn’t detract from intriguing storytelling. 

First impressions are enticing. In the museum’s reception area, a case displaying the full range of material from the collection – social, cultural, industrial – whets the appetite. Wonderful objects are beautifully displayed. The curators and designers should be commended for producing an object-rich display that is neither cluttered nor fussy.

Beyond the welcome desk, visitors are met with an evocative animation of the seasons by a contemporary sound artist, a quotation from the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and a reproduction of a print of a skeletal oak tree by the 19th-century photography pioneer William Fox Talbot. These items make the point that the landscape of rural England is constructed by work and culture as much as by nature.

The first section explores the seasons as the conductor of life in the countryside. The device is well used in many museums with rural collections, but this is the best version of it I’ve seen. There is a great mix of tools and costumes, as well as symbolic items – including a stick carved by a “poor shepherd” and a model of a sheep wearing a knitted sweater. Throughout the galleries sound has been used to great effect, with a whirring mixture of wind, birdsong and machinery. 

Country break

The ambivalent relationship between rural and urban is explored in the next section, Town and Country. The urban sick often convalesced in rural cottage hospitals; by contrast, country workers experienced poor housing and high infant mortality and found healthcare hard to access. Later, the growing popularity of commuting meant that villages – places where social and working life intersected – became less self-contained. 

The Voices and Views section continues to dispel myths about rural areas as an antidote to the grubby, commerce-driven urban world. Contemporary material acquired several years ago during a collecting spree by Merl’s former curator Roy Brigden illustrates the appropriation of the rural in fashion and culture. There is the modern country workhorse in the form of the Land Rover, a pair of wellies belonging to Glastonbury festival promoter/farmer Michael Eavis, and the original Withnail and I film poster. A younger Mary Berry appears with her book Cooking with Cheese (perhaps a new format for a TV show?).
However, it is in the section exploring innovation – Forces of Change – that the uniqueness of English rural life is really defined. The story is not one of the lark ascending, cosy villages, or pubs with warm beer, but a narrative about how, since the 19th century, England’s countryside has been an industrial agricultural landscape like no other in Europe. Raymond Williams, in his 1973 book The Country and the City, noted that “the Industrial Revolution transformed both country and the city; it was based on a highly developed agrarian capitalism”. 

Rural history has been influenced as much by man harnessing nature through technological innovation as by social continuity and landscape. The innovators featured include George Boswell (pioneer of the 18th-century seed drill), George Baylis (inventor of artificial fertiliser), Eve Balfour (one of the founders of the Soil Association) and, more recently, Anne Wigmore (champion of traditional farmhouse cheesemaking). 

All of these people wanted a thriving, living countryside. But the way in which the land is valued and exploited is contested: visitors are reminded of this throughout the galleries, with displays relating to fox hunting and through items such as the “new age” clothing of environmental campaigner Jim Hindle, best known for his attempt to block the Newbury bypass.

Different perspectives

The museum also discerns that not just one perception of the English countryside exists; the rural story of England is framed by local distinctiveness. The brilliant Wagon Walk, which can be viewed from both ground level and first floor, shows vehicles designed for particular landscapes: there are subtle differences between a wagon used on the heavy clay soil of lowland Suffolk and those for use in upland Derbyshire. 

In Digging Deeper, the selection of ploughs on display provides a fascinating insight into how the manufacture and design process is shaped by terrain and soil density. 

The notion of distinctive landscapes culminates in perhaps the most beautiful object in the display: one of the large tapestries created by Michael O’Connell for the 1951 Festival of Britain. 

The one on show portrays Kent, featuring oast houses (used for drying hops), villages, sheep and arable farming. Created at a time when mechanisation was about to sweep away centuries of traditional farming, the tapestry shows a varied, attractive, industrious rural scene – a popular archetype of the lowland English landscape. 

This vision of Englishness, of stability and progress, is reinforced in the display of original artwork from Ladybird Books. Like the English landscape, these books are considered a national treasure, engaging children in new subjects and history for more than 100 years. I was sad not to see the modern, nihilistic homage We Go to the Gallery (published by Dung Beetle books) in the museum shop though.

Plenty of other rural attractions are spoilt by the temptation to overdo the nostalgia with costumed interpreters and twee tea-rooms. Merl is different; it is a serious interrogation of the countryside. However, at times I wanted some poetry to add to the prose. The vast English oral tradition of rural storytelling, music and dance is barely mentioned, though there is so much to draw on across the UK. 

Likewise, the story of Romani and Travellers was threadbare, with few if any objects relating to the contemporary experience of a community whose culture has been changed irrevocably by mechanisation, patterns of seasonal labour and government. There is hardly any mention of the experiences of immigrant rural workers, which would be so pertinent in the context of the recent EU referendum.

I also wanted to take a hammer to the irritating audio loop of The Archers theme tune, Barwick Green, however iconic it may be. 

Unlike the Celtic and Scandinavian countries, England never had a national folk culture in which land and people became synonymous. For many, a vision of the English countryside perpetuates a notion of continuity and traditionalism.  England needs a museum such as Merl to offer these rich, dispassionate views of rurality; a landscape of beauty, change, innovation and tension.

Tony Butler is the executive director of Derby Museums Trust

Focus on: archival material

One objective of the new scheme was to draw on the strength of the Museum of English Rural Life’s (Merl) unique and extensive archive and library within displays as a keystrand of the interpretation.  Photographs have been used extensively not only for visual impact but to explain how objects were used, as context, to support the telling of “people stories” and as a source material for digital interactives and AV presentations. 

Archive and library colleagues formed part of the curatorial team developing interpretation, in some cases as individual gallery leads. Visitors are encouraged to dig deeper by exploring archival material presented in gallery drawers, and what’s inside them will be rotated every few months. Images on elevations are supplemented by flip-books that link to the sub-themes of each gallery. Books from the library appear in various locations including a section on rural childhoods in the Making Rural England gallery. 

A powerful storyline presented through archives is the digital interactive Evacuation Destination, which uses photographs and testimony voiced by elderly evacuees talking about their younger selves travelling to the countryside, often for the first time. It fits well with an overarching gallery sub-theme “Into the Countryside”.  Another interactive, titled Then and Now, uses archival material to present views of Berkshire villages, some of them alongside contrasting contemporary views. 

Voices and Views presents a visual and audio gazetteer of the English countryside including images, readings from regional texts and traditional songs.  Excerpts from Merl’s film archives can be viewed in the Forces for Change gallery, set up in order to allow regular rotation of content. 

New commissions and compilations from other sources, such as the one currently presented, by Screen Archive South East and the Wessex Film and Sound Archive – thanks to the Britain on Film Rural Life programme funded by the British Film Institute – will form a changing strand of these displays. 

Caroline Gould is the principal archivist for University Museums and Special Collections Services at the University of Reading

Project data

Cost £3.3m
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund; DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund; Wellcome Trust; Headley Trust; Earley Charity
Exhibition design Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects with Studio GuM
Interpretation in house, with GuM
Graphic design Thomas Manss & Company
Installation Elmwood Projects
Contractors AECOM; Ridge; AED; SI Electrical; Leach; BAF Graphics
Lighting DHA
Interactive hardware Sysco Productions
Interactive software Kiss the Frog Project management 
Cost consultancy PT Projects
Admission Free