Tony Butler

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Welcome to the exhibition!

Last Friday we visited the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) in Stowmarket for the opening of their new temporary exhibition, I Spy the Countryside. This is MEAL’s incarnation of a loan exhibition put together by MERL called Collecting 20th century rural cultures.

The introductory banner – one of six banners put together by MERL as part of the ‘Collecting 20th century rural cultures’ exhibition which are available for loan.

The Collecting 20th century rural cultures project at MERL, which ran from 2008, aimed to acquire objects which build a picture of the English countryside in the twentieth century. The project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures initiative. Over 400 objects were collected during the project – you can read about many of them on the project’s blog. Unlike previous collecting at MERL, which has focused largely on the story of rural technology and crafts, these objects have a more tangential connection to the countryside, exploring representations and perceptions about rural places and people.

One of the major outcomes of the project was a temporary exhibition which can be loaned to other museums and institutions. This exhibition, put together by the Sense of Place team, brings together the objects collected during the project into five themes – rural and urban interactions, the countryside as inspiration, representations of the countryside, modernisation, and conflict. These are not definitive, but are the result of our own interpretations of the material that was collected.

Both MEAL and MERL are rural museums, and share many of the same issues in contemporary collecting. Like Collecting 20th century rural cultures, I Spy the Countryside aims to get people talking about the future of collecting in rural museums. Roy Brigden, who initiated the project at MERL, opened the exhibition and in his opening speech made an excellent point about who determines what museums collect – the donors, as many museums acquire what they are offered, rather than actively seeking objects.

Ele and Izzy, Collections Management and Interpretation Interns at MEAL, who’ve spent the past few weeks working on the exhibition.

 

I Spy the Countryside was installed in two rooms in the newly-opened Abbots Hall at MEAL. It consisted of the six banners from MERL, alongside nearly sixty objects loaned from MERL and some of MEAL’s own collections. The cataloguing work we did in the summer played an important role in enabling MEAL to select the objects they wished to borrow, as all the information we have about the objects was available to view on our online catalogue (type “collecting 20th” into the search box).  I really liked the very colourful and ‘full’ feeling the exhibition had, with the walls crammed with paintings and posters, many of which we’d never seen actually seen (as we spend most of our time working from the files). There were several QR codes scattered throughout the exhibition (which Felicity will blog about shortly) and I think it was a good opportunity to learn how similar museums are making use of this technology.

Many of the objects acquired by MERL were 2D – we think they look great packed together like this.

The chair on display in the background was made by Edward Gardiner for the Cragg Sisters’ tearooms in Aldeburgh, Suffolk. MEAL was pleased to welcome a former owner of the tearooms to the exhibition opening, who offered more contextual information about the chair.

I Spy the Countryside is on display at MEAL until March 2013. Collecting 20th century rural cultures is available for loan to other institutions – if you’re interested in borrowing it or would like more information, please contact us. And if you get a chance to visit the exhibition at MEAL, please comment on the blog and give us your feedback – we’d love to hear your thoughts!

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My colleague Alison Hilton (Marketing Officer) recently joined other museum professionals from around the UK at an event held in No. 11 Downing Street in celebration of the success of Museums at Night.

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer

Alison Hilton (Marketing Officer) at No 11. Downing Street, April 2012

This visit from a member of MERL staff to the heart of government brought to mind something that I read recently, which had been penned by the current incumbent of the property next door, No. 10. The Spring 2012 edition of the Countryside Alliance quarterly magazine features a guest article by Prime Minister David Cameron (2012_Spring_Cameron), in which he writes enthusiastically about modern country life and refers to his own personal experience of different places within rural Britain. Here the PM draws attention to his own rural roots. He was brought up less than 20 miles walk from MERL, in the small West Berkshire village of Peasemore. Somewhat coincidentally, Peasemore just happens to be the location of the pub that will host the winner of MERL’s current photographic competition. I would urge you to enter this soon as the deadline of 22nd April is almost upon us.

Whilst attempting to avoid the political rhetoric of the PM’s article, I was nevertheless struck by a couple of things. Firstly, his characterisation of rural Britain as ‘a real place of mud and muck, proper community ties and incredibly hard-working people trying to make a go of their lives.’ This seems to echo the notion that the countryside might harbour potential to offer a renewed sense of social cohesion, about which I have already posted some thoughts. The piece also appears – albeit probably unintentionally – to echo language that was popular in critiques once levelled at the nascent organics movement of the 1940s, namely that this was an ethereal and unrealistic world of ‘muck and magic’! Putting this to one side for a moment, let’s take a look at how the PM then picks up on nostalgic and romantic ideas of the countryside, attempting to contextualise these within the complex social and economic climate of the present:

‘I love the beauty and history of the British landscape but for me rural life is part of the present, with huge strengths and serious challenges too… it is my constituency of Witney in West Oxfordshire where we [David Cameron and his family] are really at home. It’s a stunning bit of Britain, on the edge of the Cotswolds, with a real rural economy and thriving market towns. You can never forget, as an MP for a seat like mine, that the countryside isn’t a vast museum [my emphasis]. It’s a buzzing 21st-century economy.’

I think that it was the last section that I found particularly problematic. There is a casualness to the popular conception of museums as warehouses of the past that has the effect of pigeonholing them and portraying them as storehouse for objects, technologies, or ideas that were once important but are now redundant, once active but now static. However, much like the PM’s take on the countryside of the 21st-century, I would argue that museums are undeniably buzzing. What is more, they are waking up to their wider socio-economic potential and becoming increasingly effective at measuring their own impact, understanding their value as dynamic sites of engagement, recognising their potential to become active agents of change, and highlighting their important role as interconnecting hubs and facilitators of social enterprise. We don’t even have to look outside the rural museums sector to find the pioneers and architects of this latter approach. The Museum of East Anglian Life and its Director Tony Butler sit at the forefront of the Happy Museum Project, which seeks to bolster the social and economic importance of such institutions within their local communities, and to draw strength and inspiration from the values of people living in these places. So, far from being backward-looking institutions, museums are actually operating very much at the vanguard of David Cameron’s Big Society.

In addition, I would argue that the countryside can operate simultaneously as the ‘buzzing’ economy of the PM’s portrayal and concomitantly the enormous museum that he is keen to declaim against. Farmers and other managers of the landscape (alongside the many diverse people who work or live within it) are not only contributing towards a host of vital modern industries but participating in a vast exercise in stewardship and custodianship. Whether we travel through the countryside, talk about it, or even directly participate in and contribute towards it’s construction and care, we are all able to enjoy the fruits of these collective curatorial labours. This links back to some of the ideas that I think lay behind the very establishment of MERL. I believe that the museum’s founding father, John Higgs, probably drew inspiration from ideas about rural community and localisation that were popular with certain thinkers of the interwar period. This included people like H. J. Massingham, whose artefactual collections Higgs secured for his fledgling museum, and which have recently been fully catalogued as part of the Sense of Place project.

This notion of the nation as a vast open air museum is not really very new. It has links to the national park movement of the 1930s and arguably has its most explicit roots in ethnographic projects that preceded these developments. Indeed, I paid passing reference to one such vision in a recent article about folklore and object-collecting during the late-19th century:

‘On the threshold of a new century, one major folklorist argued that the entirety of British folklore should be thought of in museological terms, with the nation itself the museum and all its vernacular content and attributes—living and obsolete, tangible and ethereal—a distributed but systematic collection. Here the discpline itself became a museum; an historical project in which “specimens” were to be “labelled, ticketed, and set forth for greater convenience”.’

This is far from a redundant notion. I suggest it has a valuable role to play in the present and that the idea of ‘place’ should come to form a central part of how we begin think along these lines. Rural museums should seek to foster the idea of the countryside as a ‘vast museum’, thereby highlighting and capitalising on their own potential to function as key players in the broadening of public understanding about this rich interconnecting web of places, people, and activity. They can become portals, springboards, and stepping stones by which contemporary audiences can enter and begin to understand and enjoy the rural places that make up the massive countrywide display and interactive of Britain. There is nothing shameful in seeing the countryside in these terms. Instead, much like Museums at Night, this is something we should look to celebrate and encourage.

Articles cited:

  • David Cameron, ‘Last Word: My Countryside’ in Countryside Alliance, Spring 2012, p.42
  • Oliver Douglas, ‘Folklore, Survivals, and the Neo-Archaic: the Materialist Character of Late Nineteenth-century Homeland Ethnography’ in Museums History Journal 4:2, July 2011, pp.223-244
  • Alfred Nutt, ‘Presidential Address. Britain and Folklore’ in Folklore 10:1, 1899, pp.71-86 [as quoted in my own article]

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