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.