What’s your favourite?

Jonathan Brown, guest curator of our current exhibition of photography by John Tarlton, asks why we are compelled to pick a favourite. (I (Alison) have chosen mine to illlustrate his post!)

What’s your favourite?

One of the striking things about the exhibition of John Tarlton photographs we have on this summer is how quickly everybody finds a favourite picture. Even before the displays were fully mounted staff and volunteers at MERL were saying ‘I really like the farm bailiff at home’ … or the old wildfowler … or the chaps in the pub …


Fred Digby a cowman/hairdresser cutting hair in a farmyard, Fairstead, Essex (1940s/1950s). Ref: P TAR PH1/3/10/9/209/1

Fred Digby a cowman/hairdresser cutting hair in a farmyard, Fairstead, Essex (1940s/1950s). Ref: P TAR PH1/3/10/9/209/1


So it has continued with visitors to the exhibition. I did a ‘meet the curator ‘ session a couple of week ago and we were at it again, the group and I, picking particular photos that stood out for us.

There’s a warmth to John Tarlton’s photography that draws you in. He over-rides our preconceptions and prejudices. You might not be particularly interested in wildfowling, say, as a subject, but before long you find yourself looking at the photograph and saying, ‘I really like that’, even, perhaps ‘that’s my favourite’.

I’ll be taking another ‘Meet the curator’ tour on Saturday 3 August at 2.30pm. Come along and share a bit of the background to John Tarlton and his photography – choose your favourite, and enjoy tea and cake afterwards! Details are on our website

In the meantime, why not have a look at the Tarlton images on our Pinterest board (sorry the links to our database aren’t working at the moment, but you can still see the pictures) and let us know which one’s your favourite?

Our Country Lives update: MERL goes to Stockholm

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives.


One thing I never expected from working at a museum of English rural life was the opportunity to visit Sweden. However, with some Erasmus funding me and five colleagues did just that, and went to Stockholm to see one of the world’s most successful open air museum, Skansen, the Nordic Museum, and the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala.

Photograph by Adam Koszary

The Urban Quarter of Skansen

Each of our group had different interests whilst in Sweden, but all are tied to the redevelopment of MERL for Our Country Lives. Project Officer Greta’s interest in crafts and relations with craftspeople will help with our own collaborations and interpretation; Project Officer Felicity’s ethnographic interest in the Sami people will help our interpretation of rural cultures; Assistant Curator Ollie’s interest in the institutional history and development of Skansen will help our own research and interpretation of MERL’s history (see also his previous post on this blog). However, as well as these interests there was also research into the infrastructure and organisation of the museums we visited, their interaction with local groups and institutions, their approach to sensitive topics, and a profound interest in Skansen’s cinnamon buns (baked onsite).

Photograph by Adam Koszary

Statue of King Gustav Vasa at the Nordic Museum, Stockholm

Founded in 1891, Skansen is the godfather of rural, folk and open-air museums, and is incredibly successful within Sweden. Their practice of renting out historic buildings to craftspeople where they can demonstrate their skills and sell their products is one which MERL could potentially replicate on a smaller scale. Their greater size (and funding) also allow them to keep an onsite zoo containing Swedish wildlife such as wolves, bears and moose; animals after all are at the heart of rural life, and it is something we also hope to explore more in Our Country Lives. Further north, the exciting interactions between the Museum Gustavianum and Uppsala University will no doubt guide our intent to integrate ourselves more with the University of Reading and its students, and the Nordic Museum’s galleries on folk traditions and ethnographic partnerships were also interesting.

However, as well as research and study there were some vanities on our part. For instance, while visiting the Nordic Museum’s archives we were allowed a glimpse of Strindberg’s original manuscript of Miss Julie, as well as a wealth of ethnographic surveys and material relating to Skansen’s founder, Artur Hazelius. Most impressive for me was visiting the Vasa, a 17th century ship raised from the bottom of Stockholm’s port, and one of the first large ships to be preserved by polyethylene glycol, a chemical compound which replaces the water in waterlogged wood, and the same method used to preserve the Mary Rose.

Photograph by Adam Koszary

The Vasa, a preserved 17th century ship in Stockholm

Overall, the trip was a useful one. It was refreshing to see a museum so similar in vision and background to ours, but also learning from how our approach and methods differ. It is safe to say that the lessons we learnt on the trip will certainly be applied to the redevelopment of MERL, although introducing wolves to the garden may be a step too far.

More photographs after the jump…

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Is the future of MERL ethnographic?

written by Dr Ollie Douglas, Assistant Curator.


My colleague Felicity McWilliams and I recently attended an ambitious conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum on The Future of Ethnographic Museums, which encouraged me to reflect on how the Our Country Lives project might begin to explore issues of nationalism, multiculturalism and even colonialism.

MERL may seem an incongruous place in which to debate such themes. Indeed, I am sure many feel that it should stick to agricultural and folk life exhibits for which it is best known. However, as the first Keeper John Higgs argued in 1963, folk life is essentially ‘a subdivision of ethnography.’ Indeed, behind the nostalgic façade of MERL’s displays lies the somewhat unsung aim to examine the myriad ways in which people create, connect with, and repurpose ideas and objects of rural England. At the conference itself, Felicity participated in a lunchtime session during which she spoke about our recent project A Sense of Place, touching briefly on how this trialled one way of exploring MERL’s holdings from an anthropological perspective. In addition (and perhaps most unexpectedly), MERL even houses a small handful of comparative artefacts drawn from overseas contexts.

This hoe was originally sent to MERL in the 1970s for identification. Colleagues at the then Museum of Mankind identified it as being from Senegal or the Gambia. It was later donated (MERL 74/114/1-2)

This West African hoe—seen here in the object store at MERL surrounded by English-made artefacts—was originally sent to the Museum for identification. Specialists at the then Museum of Mankind identified it as being from Senegal or the Gambia. It was later donated (MERL 74/114/1-2).

I worry sometimes that the gulf between MERL and its ‘world cultures’ and ‘volkskunde’ cousins has grown too wide to bridge. However, one of the first papers at the conference began by highlighting historic plans to establish museums of Britishness or of England. Here Professor Sharon MacDonald also mentioned work by Bridget Yates on small village museums, arguing that rural communities might be seen to have had relative success in both embodying and communicating ideas of nationhood. I’m currently working with Bridget to reconsider a village collection now held by MERL and feel that this model of exploring nationhood through rural holdings might be something that the project could develop and extend.

The conference went on to examine challenges to multiculturalism and the need for museums to face up to the politics of their creation and present-day roles. Dr Wayne Modest—who in 2010 attended a Museum Ethnographers’ Group meeting held at MERL—offered a nuanced exploration of these issues, challenging curators to face up to inequality, racism, and the residues of colonialism. With its diverse local stakeholders, MERL is far from immune to this call to arms. However, its collections suggest some possibilities here. Indeed, technologies that have seemingly lost their enchantment within the English rural economy might afford visitors the opportunity to reflect upon their potential in the developing world. In this way, a collection about England’s countryside past can deliver a museum addressing much more contemporary and global concerns.

Maori artist George Nuku at MERL in 2010

Celebrated Maori artist George Nuku at MERL, talking about his work to members of the Museum Ethnographers’ Group in April 2010.

One final strand of crossover came via the ever-present spectre of imperial legacies so prevalent in approaches taken by curators of ethnography. Is this relevant, you might well ask, in a museum concerned primarily with agricultural history? Recent work on archives in the MERL collection by Jane McCutchan has actually begun to reveal far more about the colonial consumption of technologies that we tend to consider only against the historical backdrop of England’s ‘green and pleasant’ lands. Of course, the very idea of Englishness has also long been exported overseas, as in the all too familiar pinques worn by followers of this hunt in India. The history of fox hunting is undoubtedly a conflicted one (from which I myself am not unconnected), and this colonial dimension serves to add a further layer of complexity to this story.

I’m not sure where all this leaves the future of ethnographic museums but perhaps these musings offers one or two directions that rural museum might consider. Indeed, there may be ample scope for us to subvert the western gaze and invite commentaries from other cultural perspectives, whether drawn from artists engaged in ethnographic interpretation, from Reading’s own multicultural population, or even from the University of Reading’s expansive international student body. Further to this there may be ways in which institutions like MERL can operate alongside smaller rural partners who are engaged in what E. P. Thomson termed ‘history from below’ in order to deliver and critique a national story that is at times bucolic and nostalgic and at others challenging and conflicted.


Picture of the month #2: Tilting tractor

This month’s picture has been selected by Guy Baxter, University Archivist, as one of the images featured in a new MERL calendar…


Demonstrating tilting. MERL P FW PH1_74689

Demonstrating tilting. MERL P FW PH1_74689

This image, from the photographic archive of Farmers Weekly, shows a Fordson Major tractor demonstrating tilting in 1947 – it was clearly an important test because the driver is wearing a tie and a white coat! The image is one of the many striking photographs featured in the MERL Tractor Calendar 2014, which will be available from the MERL shop this Autumn.

As well as photographs, MERL also has important collections of engineering drawings, instruction manuals, trade literature and promotional films relating to all types of farm machinery. And of course there are 3 of the most iconic tractors on display in the main gallery

5 mins with…Claire Smith

Claire Smith is our Learning  Assistant and part of our Visitor Services team, so if you’ve been to MERL recently, you will probably have met her! This week she’s been busy preparing for the school holidays, and has learnt a new skill…


What have you been working on this week? This week I’ve been working on getting the new summer holiday activities ready – in particular the new Animal Trail. Fred, the museum’s Conservator, kindly fixed all the animals in place for me in various places all around the garden. I then wrote a quiz sheet, with clues for which animals to look for and where to find them. Also for the garden, I’ve had a big sort-out of all of our summer games. We now have several boxes of activities that children of all ages can play with outside, from the ever-popular Egg and Spoon Race, to a giant Snakes & Ladders board!

One of the animals on our new Animal Trail in the garden

One of the animals on our new Animal Trail in the garden

I also had a spinning lesson, from a member of the Berkshire Spinners, Weavers & Dyers Guild. We recently acquired a spinning wheel for the Learning department, so I need to learn how to use it so that I can demonstrate it for future activities. My next task is to make sure that all of our drop spindles (borrowed from the Ure Museum) are in good condition, before our Super Spinning workshop next week.

Claire trying out her new-found spinning skills

Claire trying out her new-found spinning skills

The lovely thing about the role of Learning Assistant is that it’s different all the time! Each week I come up with a different activity for the Toddler Time group, trying to keep the theme related to the museum and garden. I’m also involved with family activities during the school holidays. We recently finalised our workshops for October half term and the Big Draw, and we’re already making plans for Christmas and the New Year. We’ll be showcasing material from our Huntley & Palmer archive, to make Victorian Christmas cards and biscuit boxes – biscuits not included, sadly!   How will you be involved in the Our Country Lives project? From a Learning point of view, my main involvement at this stage is in feeding back my experience of working with families around the museum, and contributing ideas on how to improve the visitor experience for families. I also work as part of the Visitor Services team, which means I can collect feedback and think about improving the visitor experience for all of our different audiences, from the moment they first arrive at the museum.

Volunteers’ Voice #3 – Visitor research

by Rob Davies, Volunteer Co-ordinator

Last week we launched our first wave of visitor research at the Museum of English Rural Life as part of the Our Country Lives project. Each wave of visitor research will last for a week, during different parts of the national calendar and we are attempting to capture the museum at different stages of the year.

Visitor research is a big task to undergo, and for a museum with a limited staff it is quite a stretch and therefore we rely upon volunteers. Volunteers are excellent at conducting visitor surveys, not only can they provide manpower but the range of volunteers means we will have excellent people skills within the team.

Training is essential for volunteer projects and conducting visitor surveys is no different. To effectively fulfil the survey requirements, they need to be conducted with ease and efficiency.  In the training I covered:

  • Why we were conducting the survey.
  • What we were hoping to achieve from the survey.
  • The different elements of the survey.
  • How to approach visitors and explain the survey.
  • How to deal with a tricky visitor or question.
  • Which part of the museum to conduct the survey in and who is the member of staff on hand to support the volunteer team.

As we happened to choose the middle of a heatwave to start our survey, there were times when there were very few visitors to talk to, so they had a chance to explore the museum and enjoy the garden.

It is vital to make sure our volunteers continue to feel valued. I maintain contact by seeing them as often as I can, listening to their opinions and keeping them fuelled with tea! Without volunteer support we would not be able to conduct this large a visitor survey and we are forever thankful to them.

Guest post #3 – Collections-Based Research at Reading

Prof. Alison Donnell

Prof. Alison Donnell

In this month’s guest post, Professor Alison Donnell kindly provides us with details of an exciting new development at Reading.

We have a new collections-based research programme! This allows PhD students to undertake research with University of Reading collections and get specialised training. Two of these studentships connect with MERL and special collections, but the opportunity to apply for these two exciting scholarship opportunities ends 31 July. Spread the word!

The Programme offers students a learning environment in which to undertake original scholarly research in our outstanding and wide-ranging collections. Alongside high quality research supervision, you will benefit from exceptional access to primary sources and the associated professional expertise of a university museum. This nationally distinctive postgraduate training is underpinned by a focus on museum and archives skills training and placement opportunities that enhance both intellectual and employment horizons http://www.reading.ac.uk/collectionsresearch/DoctoralTrainingProgramme/cbr-dtp.aspx

Both studentships cover fees for the duration of the PhD and offer an additional payment of £3000 for the first year and £1000 per annum for the next two years (part-time options also available).

 A PhD around the topic of ‘Changes in farm business structure in England, 1936-56’ entails working with records at The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), the foremost repository for English agricultural and rural history archival material. The project will study agricultural and farm business change over 1936-56, a period of rapid and fundamental developments in the industry affecting not just the resource base, but methods of production and consumer demand. The approach taken could be historical, economic, behavioural or sociological. However, as the database lends itself to the use of GIS techniques, geographers could also find it useful as could those interested in environmental change at the regional level.

‘Animating the Evacuee Archive: Memory and Materiality’ offers an opportunity for practice-led doctoral research around the largest evacuee archive in the UK. The archive contains a wealth of autobiographical documentation produced by a range of socially and culturally diverse Second World War child evacuees from the UK to a variety of national and international destinations, including – via the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. The available documentation includes written testimonies, diaries, letters, photographs, film and audio recordings, and a variety of ephemera, such as, for example, ships’ menus. We invite applications from appropriately qualified candidates in any relevant discipline, including theatre, museum studies, history, performance, film and media studies. You should have an interest in socio-political histories and their documentation. The project framework proposes practice-led doctoral research that will engage with, intervene in and animate aspects of this archive within a range of publicly accessible spaces, thus shaping and re-routing it via a hybridized range of potentially interactive events. The critical frameworks and practical outcomes of the PhD research will be informed by, and interlock with, an important new cross-institutional project funded by the Arts Council, in which the supervisors are involved. There is also a placement opportunity in a museum setting.

This is a really amazing opportunity so please do tweet, post and blog about the studentships. For further details see:http://www.reading.ac.uk/collectionsresearch/StudentshipsandFellowships/cbr-stufel.aspx



My Favourite Object #2: Ploughs are interesting (honest)

The second ‘favourite object’ has been chosen by Adam Koszary, Project Officer for Our Country Lives. Since starting on work at MERL, it seems he has developed a particular interest in ploughs. Read his personal reflections on the merits of the plough…


It is worth pointing out that before I started at the Museum of English Rural Life, I had only a vague idea of what constituted English rural history; in fact, it was the first time I had even heard the phrase ‘rural life’. I am also not alone. With increasing urbanisation (I myself am a product of the West Midland Conurbation) there have also been increasing worries that children are disconnected from the land – the most recently publicised poll revealed that a third of primary school children thought cheese came from plants and one in five thought fish fingers came from chicken. While statistics should be taken with a pinch of salt, there is certainly a disconnection between the world of the farm and the urban sprawl. For instance I had little knowledge of ploughs, which, when I talk about working at a museum of rural life, is the thing which immediately springs to people’s minds (often with a roll of the eyes).

However, the more I read about the plough the more I have learnt to appreciate it. Like the cow, it has been with us since pre-history, with rudimentary versions tilling the fields of the first domesticated crops in the Fertile Crescent, which in turn developed into the lighter, oxen-drawn ploughs by the Roman period. I recently finished Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel on my commute, a book where he attempts to explain why ‘western civilisation’ dominates the world. He forwards the compelling hypothesis that the success of western civilisation is due to accidents of geography and biology. In particular, the ancient domestication of crops and animals – with which the invention of technology such as the plough went hand-in-hand – is an essential pre-requisite of large-scale, complex societies. The plough may seem mundane to most but it is a practical, time-tested tool that has built the world as we know it. That the same tool has been with us for around seven thousand years is, I would say, on par with the timeless design of the wheel.

62-524 copy

A Hornsby Reversible Plough (MERL/62/524)

That is not to say that the plough has not gone through some variations, such as moldboards and cutting knives, but the essential purpose and design of the plough is relatively unchanged. I have been spending time drawing the ploughs on MERL’s walls on my lunch breaks, and my first victim was the One-way Reversible Plough, made by Hornsby of Grantham. Quite a rare example according to the 2011 Digging Deep plough survey (p.22), it is designed with two moldboards on the beam, so that when one is engaged on one side of the plough, the other is lifted into the air. It is also known as a ‘Butterfly Plough’ – a name which, to me, does not adequately reflect the number of sharp blades attached to the frame. In fact, my first sight of it put me in mind of B-movie slasher flicks, and I could easily imagine a Leatherface-type serial killer wielding the Hornsby plough, chasing a victim across the Yorkshire Moors.

However, I would have been better imagining it wielded by Margaret Thatcher, as Hornsby was an internationally important industrial manufacturer located in her hometown of Grantham, and credited with pioneering the track system for vehicles which would eventually be used on the first tanks in World War I. The company, bought out by Ruston in 1918, was eventually subsumed into English Electric in 1966, which in turn was bought by Siemens in 2003.

However, regardless of the fortunes of individual companies, the plough ploughs on, its fundamental design and purpose remaining the same despite technological advances. For Our Country Lives, it is my hope that the ploughs receive more attention in how they are displayed and interpreted, so that more people can better understand the significance of what they are looking at. MERL has an opportunity in Our Country Lives to fight the kind of ignorance cited at the start of this post, and it can often be as easy as finding new ways to interpret hackneyed objects such as tractors and ploughs in a manner which makes people look at them differently.