Our Country Lives goes ahead with £1.7m HLF grant

We are all very pleased and excited to announce that we have been successful in securing a further £1.7m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, in order to redevelop MERL as part of the Our Country Lives project! You can see our press release here.


As it was #MusCake day this week as well, we thought we'd celebrate with an Our Country Lives themed cake.

As it was #MusCake day this week as well, we thought we’d celebrate with an Our Country Lives themed cake.

That we have got to this stage is testament to the huge amount of work we’ve already done in reviewing what we as a Museum stand for, and our plan for how we can best tell the story of English rural life to our visitors. One of the main reasons for redeveloping MERL is that we’re aware that there is a new generation of visitors who need different ways of engaging with our rural heritage through new, themed displays, innovative interpretation and an exciting programme of activities. The galleries will be more engaging for adults and children alike, with things to interact with in the galleries, handling opportunities and far more digital interpretation of the collections, which will display the incredible depth and variety of our Archives, including film and photography.

Visitor evaluation – as it should – has played a big part in directing our work. The majority of our visitors do not live in the countryside, so we aim to reveal the relevance of the countryside to those whose lives have been spent in towns and cities. However, just because someone lives in the city obviously doesn’t mean they don’t have experience of or are entirely unaware of the countryside. As such, we will be exploring various popular themes such as craft and craftspeople, how we view and perceive the countryside, and invite our visitors to tell us what they think of contemporary issues, such as climate change, food security and the relationship between town and country. We will also be focusing far more on the people, past and present, who make up the countryside, and what their stories can tell us about our continuing countryside story.

Staff and volunteers celebrated the news yesterday.

Staff and volunteers celebrated the news yesterday.

There is almost too much to tell you about in this one blog post – for instance, we’re uncovering displays unseen since the ‘50s (such as our amazing Festival of Britain wall hangings – see below), building a new gallery, creating new spaces for learning and exploring our collections digitally, embarking on an exciting three year programme of new events and activities – the list could go on (and does so here). For now, we’ve taken a breather to celebrate with cake and to take a month or so to make all the preparations necessary to start on the project proper.

One of the best ways to keep up with progress on the project will be this blog, but we’re also working on various other ways you can see what we’re doing behind the scenes, and what you can expect in the new MERL. We would also like to say thank you to all of those who have helped us get this far in the project: MERL staff, our funders, our consultants GuM and Cultural Consulting, the University of Reading, and of course our fabulous volunteers.

One of Michael O'Connell's 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

One of Michael O’Connell’s 1951 wall hangings will feature in the new MERL.

Our Country Lives update: How we research

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

You may have noticed that we’ve been a bit quiet recently about our HLF-funded redevelopment project, Our Country Lives. This is because we’re waiting for a response from the Heritage Lottery Fund due on June 13th (fingers crossed), but also because a lot of us have been busy catching up on other projects such as Reading Connections, Countryside21 and Sense of Place. country lives logoLast week, however, has seen the project kick-started again with a couple of meetings focusing on how we should be researching the stories and objects we want to put into the new displays, as well as how we should be marketing the new MERL. We’re also reaching a stage where I can give more detailed project updates, and this series of posts will probably focus more on the research-side of things, as well as some behind-the-scenes of how we go about delivering such a huge project as Our Country Lives. To recap our research so far, we spent a lot the 2013 winter and spring of 2014 getting to grips with the huge amount of objects and archives in the MERL collection. As well as trying to make sure we’re representing the countryside in all of its complexity and diversity, we have to make sure that we’re choosing the best objects and archives for the job, backed up by solid and current research.

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

The stories we want to tell about rural life are sometimes driven by our objects, archival documents, video footage, or other types of media. Sometimes a problem can be that we do not have any objects to illustrate stories we want to tell, but in our case our problem is having too many objects. Did you know we have around 26,000 objects, archives covering 4,500 linear metres and a library of over 50,000 volumes? It’s obviously a good thing that we have such a large and diverse collection, but this is also a double-edged sword. Our museum has no off-site storage, and so everything has to fit into the galleries, mezzanine storage, and a new duplicate store which is being built at the back. Because of this, much of our work so far has been trying to find a place for all of our objects so that our designers could decide where to put essential things such as walls and doorways.

This is one of the reasons why we are putting our wagons in a line along the north wall; as well as being a new and interesting way of exploring this nationally important collection, it is also one of the only ways to fit them all into the galleries. The only other option was to have a few wagons in every single gallery, which we thought would overshadow the other collections. As for the rest of the collection, we have been combing through our catalogue and placing our objects into the galleries and storylines best suited for them. You can see an example of one of our spreadsheets below, which will be the base from which we decide where and why to put our objects, including how they fit in with key messages, generic learning outcomes and storylines. We will also work from these lists to engage in more detailed research on specific objects and subjects contained within the new galleries. The storylines and topics we want to explore are by no means final, however, and so we will also be spending a lot of time in the coming months ironing out our topics, consulting with experts, and having lengthy debates about what is in and what is out.

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

Essentially, the planning and delivery an almost entirely new museum is difficult and complicated, but it is also a rewarding and refreshing experience. If you would like to know a bit more about this aspect of the project or the project as a whole, feel free to drop me an email at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk , and keep an eye out for future updates.

Our Country Lives Update

written by Sophia Mirchandani, Katie Norgrove and Jocelyn Goddard, consultants working on Our Country Lives


We are founder members of Cultural Consulting Network, which provides professional consultancy services to the heritage and arts sectors. Specialising in research, evaluation, project development, funding and grants, we work closely with our clients to provide intelligent and workable solutions to suit individual needs.

We have spent many years working in the South East region and have seen the Museum of Rural Life change and develop over that time. We’re delighted to be part of the Our Country Lives team, continuing its progress with a new and exciting project.

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

We are hoping to build on successful events like our 2013 Village Fete!

Applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund go through a 2-stage process for grants at this level. We are currently in the middle – the development phase. This is the time for putting more detail into the plans, testing out assumptions, trying out new ideas and most importantly, talking to people. Once this has happened, we can produce an Activity Plan. This will be submitted as part of the 2nd round application. It will cover everything the Museum wants to achieve that will affect people, rather than buildings, objects or collections.

We began by finding out as much as we could about the people who visit MERL and use its collections – Why do they come? What do they like about us? What kind of people are they?  If you visited recently, you may have been asked to fill in a questionnaire to help us answer some of these questions.

Now we are moving on to think about the people we would like to visit and benefit from the collections, but who may need some changes to be made in order to make that possible or to improve their experience. Perhaps they only have a vague idea about MERL and what they might find there. Perhaps they would like more information about the objects in the displays, so that they can explain what they are seeing to their children. Or maybe they would want to get more involved – take part in a project or volunteer for an activity, for example.


If you would like to join in this kind of discussion, please get in touch with the Project Officer Adam Koszary at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk