The Museum of English Rural Life reopened in October 2016 after a £3million redevelopment project, which radically transformed our public displays.
The new Museum challenges perceptions about rural England by revealing the historical and contemporary relevance of country life. Come and discover our new interactive, immersive galleries which explore questions of identity, environment, technology, culture and health.
Did you know
...city families used to pick hops on holiday?
Hop picking holidays allowed city families to earn money. Pickers were paid with tokens, which were used in local shops or exchanged for wages.
Did you know
...Elizabethan mattresses were used for both childbirth and corpses?
Mattresses, plaited from sedges, were made to support a mother during childbirth or a corpse after death. After use it would have been burned.
Did you know
...farmers used to sow seeds by fiddle?
Sowing by hand can be slow and inaccurate. Seed drills were developed in the 1800s to sow seeds quickly in a straight line at regular intervals.
Did you know
...Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) was one of the earliest organic farmers and co-founded the Soil Association?
Women continue to play a key role in this movement, with organic farms employing significantly more women than chemical farming.
Did you know
...Suttons Seeds invented the seed packet?
The local Reading firm, founded in 1806, popularised paper packets of seeds for gardeners.
Did you know
...villages often used to run their own fire services?
The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.
Did you know
Our Country Lives - Latest Blog Posts
Our blog explores the people, places and issues of the historic and contemporary English countryside and rural life, uncovering and exploring our collections, the exciting activity around the MERL and the people we with.
After a successful launch in the October half term holiday, we are delighted that Jelly are running another Arts and Heritage Holiday Club at the Museum this Easter, for 7 to 11 year olds to achieve an Arts Award. But why? We had a chat with organiser, Kate Powell, about why she’s so passionate about encouraging children to take part in Arts Awards…
a white line of text here
What’s the value of doing an Arts Award for this age group?
The Discover Arts Award is the perfect introduction to all kinds of creativity. At Jelly we focus on visual arts and will introduce the children to loads of different techniques that they can continue at home. It teaches them that art isn’t about following a template or ‘getting it right’ it’s all about experimenting and playing.
What do you think the children get out of doing an Arts Award?
One of the most rewarding things we see that children get out of doing Arts Award is a confidence boost. To know that they can be creative and that they can let their imaginations guide them. We see that getting lost at such an early age and at Jelly we nurture creativity at every age.
“This was the first holiday activity my daughter came to with no anxiety and spoke about with true passion, as a parent it was great to see her enjoy this course so much and we genuinely will look forward to another.”
Clare G, parent of one of the October Half Term Arts & Heritage club attendees
Is the Arts Award just for children that are really good at art?
Arts Award is for everyone! It’s as much about playing, experimenting and having fun – learning what you like and what you don’t like. Remember that everyone is a beginner sometimes and it’s just as important to practise at being creative as it is your times tables!
Why do an Arts Award in a museum?
What do you enjoy most about these workshops?
I think as artists/designers we all enjoy seeing the children engage with the techniques and bring their own ideas to them. It’s really amazing seeing the work that is produced and how they have used their imaginations.
What other Arts Awards projects have you worked on?
Jelly runs Arts Award at a variety of levels in primary and secondary schools in and around Reading. We have recently been focusing on primary schools, taking children through their Discover Arts Award and on to their Explore level. We have worked with printmaking, animation, clay modelling, textile design, interior design and even most recently remodelling Reading with a project on architecture. Arts Award is very flexible so we can include lots of exciting stuff each time we do it. It keeps life interesting!
So who is the holiday club at the MERL for?
If you’re looking for a relaxed holiday club with a difference that’s what you’ll get this Easter with Jelly at The MERL.
The club is for children who love getting really creative, learning new ways to make things (like masks and BIG willow sculptures), drawing, making, sticking, building, painting, printing and of course making friends and playing games!
What will you be doing?
At this holiday club we will be building large scale willow sculptures and masks taking inspiration from the British countryside which will be used during a parade to celebrate the reopening of Reading Abbey in June!
Alongside this, every day the children will work with an artist to create different pieces of art and record their work in their sketchbooks. The sessions will help the children to explore the exhibits in the MERL and will encourage them to look at the museum in a completely different way.
And at the end of it all, they will have earned a certificate!
A white line of text here
When is it and how do you book?!
All materials are included in the price. The children will need to bring lunch, snacks and water.
Dates and time: 27 – 29 March, 9.30am to 3.30pm
Cost: £85 for full course or £35 for single days
a line of text here
Images were created by our young artists in our October Half Term Arts and Heritage Club at MERL
Caitlin Hinshelwood is a London based textile artist and designer, producing distinctive, hand dyed and screen-printed pieces. She is interested in using motifs and symbols to suggest narrative within her textiles.
I am often drawn to the work of unknown makers, objects that have been made for necessity, decoration, or just the love of it. This often leads me to ethnographic or folk collections and I spend as much time as possible visiting museums, archives and countries to gather this research. I am also especially fond of a museum tool display.
I had wanted to visit MERL for many years, as I knew it would hold exactly the types objects I find so interesting. When I finally visited last year, tools, textiles, butter and ginger bread molds, corn dollies, machinery, packaging, ceramics, basketry were all there. It’s frustrating imagining all the things you hold, but can’t be out on display!
Usually I sit with my references for a while before turning them into anything but I had a show coming up at Heal’s and wanted a new piece for then. The designing for the Rural Life scarf happened really quickly and intuitively. I was already making sketches on the train back to London.
When I design my scarves I usually start with a geometric, patterned border. I’d seen some amazing enamel barge ware at the museum and some of these inspired the border pattern. Once I’ve designed the border I start on the central motifs, incorporating things I’d seen at the museum or coming up with versions of them. All the screen artwork is hand-painted in three different layers, one for each colour of the final design.
Each scarf is screen-printed on silk using a complex process called colour discharge printing which allows you to achieve ‘pure’ colour on a dyed ground. Effectively, there’s a chemical in the dye paste which bleaches the base colour so when the fabric is steamed, and the chemicals react, the dye paste reveals it’s true colour. Playing with colour is a major part of my practice, which is why I never print the same design in exactly the same colour combinations, seeing how the design can change in each variation and making each one unique.
Written by Greta Bertram, Secretary of the Heritage Crafts Association and freelance consultant.
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA) is a charity which supports and promotes heritage craft skills, knowledge and practices as a fundamental part of our living heritage. In the HCA we’ve long been aware of anecdotal evidence about crafts which have disappeared or are down to the ‘last of the line’ so in 2015, with funding from The Radcliffe Trust, we embarked on a major research project (and the first of its kind in the UK) to examine the current viability of every traditional craft taking place in the UK today and to identify those most at risk of disappearing. In doing so, we would be able to provide some solid evidence about the state of crafts, and generate some base-line data so that in the future we can tell whether the situation is getting worse or, hopefully, improving. This resulted in The HCA/Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts, which was launched in May 2017.
We looked at 169 crafts, focussing on those with a significant reliance on hand-work and with high levels of hand skill, and which have been practised for two or more generations. After careful consideration of such factors as the number of skilled craftspeople and trainees, the average age of practitioners, how endangered craftspeople felt their craft to be, and the issues affecting the craft, we assigned each craft to one of four categories: extinct, critically endangered, endangered and currently viable (with an extra category of ‘data deficient’ for those where we didn’t have enough information to make a classification).
We found four crafts which have become extinct in the UK in the last ten years: cricket ball making, gold beating, lacrosse stick making, and sieve and riddle making. (While you can still buy cricket balls marked ‘Made in England’ these are in fact made in India and Pakistan and only finished in the UK.) We found seventeen crafts to be ‘critically endangered’, meaning they are at serious risk of disappearing. They include clog making, hat block making, saw making and swill basket making. These crafts have very few practitioners, generally spread across just one or two businesses, and usually with no trainees learning the skills. We identified a further 45 crafts as endangered – but found 93 as currently viable, although just because a craft is classified as ‘currently viable’ does not mean that it is risk-free.
The research also found that all crafts, and not just those identified as critically endangered, face a wide range of challenges. For some crafts it’s an ageing skilled workforce (where the youngest craftsperson may be in their 50s or 60s), a shortage of training opportunities or difficulties in recruiting trainees. For others it’s a fluctuating market, competition from overseas or the unwillingness of customers to pay that little bit more for handmade British items. Some crafts have problems with the supply of raw materials and tools – wheelwrights, who use oak, ash and elm to make a wheel are severely affected by the various timber diseases. Others point out that people just don’t know they still exist. And for yet more it’s the myriad obstacles that have to be overcome if you’re self-employed (which almost 80% of heritage craftspeople are) or running a microbusiness.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – there were some success stories too. Clog making is quite unusual amongst the critically endangered crafts in that there’s actually an apprentice learning the skills. JoJo Wood, a world-renowned spoon carver, is learning to make clogs with hand-carved soles under the tutelage of Jeremy Atkinson in Herefordshire:
And the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights has given serious thought to the future of its craft. Most wheelwrights in the UK either work alone or with one or two other people, which makes it really difficult for someone to take time out of their work to train an apprentice without detriment to their business. But with funding from various sources, two wheelwrights have just completed a three-year apprenticeship and the Worshipful Company is now planning for up to twenty apprentices over the next forty years. This number of apprenticeships is believed to be sustainable and will maintain the healthy position of the craft.
So what next for these endangered crafts – and for all crafts? Sadly, there isn’t a magic bullet cure-all solution. The Heritage Crafts Association is a very small charity with only one part-time member of staff, so our resources are extremely limited, but our intention is that the Red List becomes a powerful advocacy tool to argue for support (and funding) for heritage crafts from those who can make a difference, and for action to be taken to address the broader issues of the sector – particularly relating to training, recruitment and market issues.
Visit the Red List website to find out more about the research, download a copy of the report and read the recommendations.
Visit the HCA website to find out more about our work, become a member or make a donation.
Join Our Community
Join our community
Join our community
Keep in touch
Our 'MERL news' and 'MERL families' e-newsletters feature information about projects, activities and events.