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.