A shrine to all things farming, The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) is on a mission to educate the public about our country’s agricultural history. Emily Ashworth reports.
In the entrance to the MERL, there is a timeline that highlights significant events in our farming history, starting from 1801 up to 2016. Much has changed in that span of time – and will continue to change long into the future.
With Brexit, advancing technology and environmental challenges around every corner, it is a somewhat pleasant experience to walk around the MERL and revel in our country’s rich farming heritage, with its displays that in parts capture an almost forgotten way of life.
Plus, it boasts rights to England’s oldest farm wagon and houses a particularly impressive display of ploughs from years gone by. It is, however, about highlighting the countryside and its changing dynamic, says museum curator Dr Ollie Douglas, and engaging the public in topics they would not otherwise associate with agriculture and the countryside.
The museum’s beginnings span back to 1951 and, after gaining funding from the Lottery project, the MERL was refurbished and is now home to a mixed array of impressive artefacts, paintings, crafts and mechanisms, as well as possessing a pair of wellies owned by Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis.
It is certainly an eclectic show, but it is deliberate in that Ollie feels they are in a position to appeal to both those from a farming background, and those who are not. It is situated a stone’s throw from the University of Reading, a location you perhaps would not expect to find a rural museum, in the middle of a city.
“People think of Reading as a hightech, urban, business-oriented place, not necessarily somewhere you would come to a rural museum,” says Ollie.
“There are increasing numbers coming to study agriculture who are not from a farming background too, meaning we can be part of the conversation between the two worlds.”
As you walk around the exhibition, some aspects challenge the public’s misconception of certain farming sectors such as wool production or the role of upland farmers, while others involve the visitor interactively in farming-based activities, such as lambing.
And Ollie, who is from a sheep farm in the Scottish Borders, ensured every aspect of lambing was correct by enlisting the help of his own father.
“Most of the visitors who don’t have knowledge of sheep farming and come here to play this will take away the message that actually, it is really difficult – and that is just an interactive view,” he says.
“Sheep farming is quite conflictive and complex, with continuous debates about rewilding versus maintenance of hill sheep farming, but by including a significant section on sheep farming, it allows us to talk about these things and delve a little deeper.”
It also looks to those who make up the fabric of the rural community by documenting the work of individuals such as rural doctors and midwives.
Ollie says: “By drawing out people stories, we can humanise the displays and make them more accessible.
“You might not know what kind of implements a rural doctor would have used in the early 20th century, but you all know what their role is, or that of a midwife. We can give them a name and a face and a short biography.”
The displays are brimming with hidden and underlying messages, looking at how we have come to think about the countryside in the way we now do. From housing development encroaching on rural land as the pull of space, fresh air and rolling landscape became an increasingly attractive prospect, to looking at increasing mechanisation and the threat to farm labour.
And while passionate about agricultural history, the museum is proud of its own timeline and has a section dedicated to its emergence.
With The Archers playing – a radio show which was broadcast nationally at the time of the museum’s establishment – there are excerpts on how the MERL came to be what it is.
Ollie says: “I think it is important to acknowledge the emergence of a rural museum in the 1950s. During that time, the museum took itself to various agricultural shows to gather rural informants, stakeholders and custodians of the land looking to find money of course, but, more so, objects to display. They gathered things pretty rapidly. Cutting edge machinery was coming out when we were established. It was an incredibly influential time.”
And the one thing they cannot ignore is the increasing mechanisation of farming yet, instead of focusing on the broader timescale of that, they have looked at individual farmers who, through that era, made personal decisions to adapt or continue with their methods.
“We did not want to take a progressionist approach to technology,” says Ollie.
“We wanted to look at the people involved and the motives behind farmers’ decisions.
“It hopefully informs people about how challenging decisions can be for a farmer, to make significant investments in technologies and adaptations and what the implications of that are.”
Although committed to ensuring the UK’s rural heritage is safeguarded, it is key to combine the past with the present and future and enable discussions about a new era in agriculture.
Ollie says: “We have a board game about the artificial insemination of dairy cattle and selective breeding, where you work your way around the board and improve your herd.
“It is also a vehicle to talk about genetics and how genetic modification is the contemporary follow-on from selective breeding, which has been going on for a millennium.”
There is also the chance for visitors to make decisions about technology and whether to adopt it or not, from the 19th century through to 2050.
“This is about food security,” says Ollie.
“Most people will come in here and make decisions heavily informed from nostalgic countryside ways of doing things. They will probably adopt certain things, but be resistant to genetic modification or fertilisers and pesticides.
As a consequence, they will probably end up killing off a large percentage of the world’s population.
“It is a nod to the global agricultural challenges we face.”
Visitor numbers reached an all-time high last year, when the museum became renowned for its presence on social media. The MERL’s rise to fame was somewhat unforeseen, but it has no doubt given the museum the platform it needs to engage with its desired wider audience, sending out daily intriguing and witty tweets that will resonate with the farming and non-farming world.
The MERL predicts about 35,000 visitors will visit this year. Its success has been international too, many guestbook comments stating they specifically planned their trip around visiting the MERL.
“We have seen a huge growth,” says Ollie.
“We use social media as a vehicle to connect and we follow up quirky information with facts.”
The MERL is one of the only rural museums that houses a national collection and is unique in that it is a university museum. And with that educational relationship, says Ollie, comes the opportunity to engage the public with wider issues that affect food and farming.
He says: “It is an incredible challenge to engage those who feel they have no connection to food and farming and rural life.
“There are several reasons though that it is important to talk about these things. Firstly, it’s my own heritage and I can recognise the fact we want others to engage and empathise with the way we were brought up.
“More broadly, some of the biggest challenges we face globally connect strongly to food and farming and human health. Using these collections, each focusing on a different aspect, we can look at the food security challenges, or the nutritional and environmental ones more closely.
“This is not a dead collection that has come here to die or be a nostalgic point of reference for those hankering after a way of life that is gone.
“It is an active sight of dialogue that brings people together to share interests about things we all have to face up to. It seems foolhardy not to look at our past to inform the decisions we make about agriculture’s future.”