MERL & MAE, the direction of Our Country Lives

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for ‘Our Country Lives’.


The Museum of English Rural Life is transforming, and our vision for the new direction and focus of the museum is reflected in our project title: ‘Our Country Lives’. I have been employed specifically to work on this project, and to help find a way of retaining what is best about MERL as it is, whilst also exploring the vast potential of its collections. Our objects are not only great in telling the story of agricultural technology and crafts, but also how the livelihoods and communities of our countryside have shifted and changed, reflecting changing economic and technological conditions.

One perfect example, already introduced below by Kate, is the Series 1 Land Rover – known as ‘MAE’, from its number plate MAE397. It is immediately recognisable as a symbol of the countryside – it almost seems mandatory to be wearing a flat-cap while driving one – yet it is also a symbol of the great shift in the way of rural life in the mid-late 20th century.



MAE397 as it stands in the gallery.

I was put in mind of MAE on my commute into Reading this morning, as an article in the Metro informed me that the Series 1 is celebrating its 65th Anniversary this year. While the article notes that the Land Rover was created for farmers, and was sold on its ability to traverse all terrain, it acknowledged that most Land Rovers are now used as status symbols and are more likely to be used for picking up the kids from school than driving through fords. However, it is this new appeal and the marketing of the rural way of life (i.e. as a more refined and quintessentially ‘English’ identity) that has no doubt saved its Solihull factory from closure, unlike the infamous case of Rover’s nearby Longbridge factory.


It is these kind of threads, which track how rural life has shifted and changed, often driven by economic factors, which will be more fully explored in ‘Our Country Lives’. The Land Rover itself is also a part of our new initiative of collecting objects relating to ‘20th Century Rural Cultures’, and it is essential that each of our objects reflects a person or story which encapsulates in some way how rural life has changed, or in some cases persevered, through this past century of rapid change. For this project to succeed, we at the Museum of English Rural Life will be needing all the help we can get from our visitors and rural communities, so please keep an eye out for opportunities in helping with this exciting new redevelopment!

Ready for the John Tarlton exhibition

written by Jonathan Brown, guest curator. Jonathan Brown had curatorial responsibilty for MERL’s archive and photographic collections for many years. He is now a Hon. MERL  fellow.


John Tarlton is coming. He is almost here. He is the subject of MERL’s summer exhibition, and it has been my privilege to have been involved in its preparation. One of the text banners says I’m ‘guest curator’ or some such, which seems rather grand when it’s really been a collaborative effort involving members of MERL across the spectrum.


Jonathan Brown setting up the case about Tarlton

Jonathan placing photographs in the case which will tell the story of Tarlton himself


Who, then, is John Tarlton? He was (he died in 1980) a photographer. A good one, but not one to win awards from art and photography academies or for his photojournalism. He was a commercial photographer, providing photographs for popular magazines, books, advertising and businesses. He was one of thousands in the same trade. We don’t even know the names of a lot of them, but they perhaps had more effect on daily life than those whose award-winning prints sell for thousands. For these commercial photographers create the popular visual aesthetic to our age, the equivalent, perhaps, to the music that forms the aural background. They are the photographers with whom the amateur can most easily identify.


John Tarlton photographed the British countryside and country people. He worked for magazines, such as Country Life and The Field – that’s why his photographs have ended up in the Museum’s archive collections.


He worked from the late 1940s to the 1970s, and was quite prolific: there are 12,000 photographs in the collection at MERL, and we know of more that didn’t reach us. It made choosing a few for an exhibition a hard task – even after stretching it beyond the confines of the normal temporary exhibition space, so that some are to be found around the main galleries.


I needed to pinpoint a few themes. Some were broad, such as Tarlton’s interest in the country sports of shooting and fishing – there can’t be a trout stream in England he didn’t photograph. Some could be specific: Tarlton was a native of Essex, but, rather than range around the county, I kept to a few photos from his native village. Another decision which helped concentrate the selection was to include only his work in black and white. There were temptations to have some colour, but I resisted.


Tarlton the fisherman

Tarlton was a keen fisherman himself


It’s been a few years since I last prepared an exhibition. Then the layout was planned on graph paper. Now I have a digital camera as well: photographs of the walls on which the exhibition was to hang, felt-tip outlines on the prints, after detailed tape measurements. Not as neat as graph paper, but reasonably clear.


Tarlton exhibition layout plan

Jonathan’s exhibition plan on the wall in the workshop


The exhibition is almost all mounted. It officially opens on 4 May and runs until 8 September. I hope you enjoy it.

Details are available on the MERL website


Mounted prints ready to be hung

The workshop is full of prints and frames at various stages of readiness!

MERL’s new blogging venture

written by Kate Arnold-Forster, Director of MERL and Head of the University Museums & Special Collections Service.

After months of thinking, training courses, persuading and planning, (and a good deal of procrastinating) we have finally taken the plunge and decided to launch ‘Our Country Lives – the new MERL blog’.  Mainly through the efforts of Alison Hilton, our marketing officer, we have gradually built up a MERL presence on Twitter and Facebook alongside more traditional channels for communicating with our visitors and researchers.  Much of this, of course, has focused on making the most of opportunities to let people know about our many and varied events, services and programmes, along with announcing news about new initiatives and projects. However, while this has helped put us on the map locally, regionally and even nationally, we now want to take the next step by using blogging was a way to provide a sharper focus on how we operate and think as a museum. We will aim to share more of the experiences that shape the day to day work of colleagues, volunteers and visitors, triumphs and setbacks even, but also provide an insight for those who follow us into what will be a period of change and transformation.

Towards the end of last year, as some of you will know, we heard that we had been successful in our round one application to HLF for ‘Our Country Lives’ project. This is an extraordinary opportunity and one that we aim to make the most of to redevelop the museum’s displays and facilities as part of a project that will refocus how we interpret our collections.  Over the next 12 months we will be researching and deepening our plans for a scheme where we aim to place people and experiences of rural life at the heart of the museum’s mission.

As our physical collections rapidly recede from living memory we will aim to apply our learning from our first years at the museum’s new home, including addressing the need for better spaces for events and learning, deploying layered interpretation for a range of audiences, both current and potential new visitors, and creating an interpretation strategy that encompasses new material acquired as part of MERL’s Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures project.  Key to this process will be the development of  partnerships with rural and local communities to help us be more responsive and iterative in the way we display the collections to make sure they reflect better people’s understanding of the changes and developments that the museum’s important collections illuminate.


MAE, the Series 1 Land Rover acquired recently as part of the Collecting 20thC Rural Cultures project

The purpose therefore of our blog will be to involve readers in this process as we develop our vision into a detailed plan – we hope, for example, that we will reach followers whose own lives relate to or are recorded in the museum’s collections.  But equally we want share our reflections and experiences with those who are entirely new to MERL.

This seems a good time and place to begin this new venture although how this will evolve remains excitingly uncertain!