written by Felicity McWilliams, Project Officer.
Quite a few of my favourite objects in the museum were collected as part of the Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures project. The project began in 2008, with the aim of acquiring objects for the collections which build a picture of the twentieth century English countryside. A wide variety of objects were collected, such as a Corgi Toy combine harvester, a Farmer Palmer cartoon mug, and suburban railway posters advertising countryside rambles. More so than the rest of the collections, these objects often show ideas and representations of and about the countryside. I’ve chosen object number 2009/69 as my favourite – a full set of 50 Ogden’s cigarette cards, from the 1932 series ‘By the Roadside’. Each card depicts a place of historical or natural interest in or close to a town, with a colour illustration and description of the place on the reverse. The places featured on the cards range from all over England – and two from Scotland. Each illustration also has a small map showing how to find the place in relation to nearby larger towns. As former curator Roy Brigden pointed out in his own blog post about these cards, this implies that the collector could or should take a day trip to visit the featured place. Day trips in the countryside became possible for urban dwellers with the advent of the railways and later the motor car, and other objects in the Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures collection, such as a 1900’s travelling tea-making basket, point to this popular twentieth century pastime.
Day trips to the countryside are by no means a hobby of the past, either. My own favourite from within this set is the ninth card in the series, which features the wool market in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. I like this one in particular because it reminds me of regular and continuing visits to Chipping Campden with my Nan. I’ll admit we probably visit for the tearooms and shoe shop more than the wool market, but it is a fascinating structure that is just part of the great historical interest and beauty of the town.
For me, this set of cigarette cards is very much about the rural landscape and our interactions with it. The Our Country Lives project will tackle the challenge of bringing more stories about rural lives, people, and landscapes into the displays; the objects collected as part of Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures have a lot of potential to help draw out such themes. The current temporary exhibition at MERL is called Collecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures, and it features many of the objects collected as part of the project. There’s also a space for visitors to leave their own suggestions and experiences, all of which will feed back into the Our Country Lives redevelopment work.