Deputy University Archivist, Caroline Gould, has spent a huge amount of time exploring the MERL archives and photographic collections to select the items which will help tell the stories in our new museum galleries. Faced with such a wealth of fascinating archive material, this hasn’t always been the easiest of exercises!
For the last two years we have all been researching which objects, archives, library material should appear in the new galleries as part of the Our Country Lives project. It has been a key aim of this project to include in the displays more of the archives which are held by the museum.
The Museum of English Rural Life is a major national repository for archives of agriculture and rural life. The strengths of the collection include: records of major agricultural manufacturing firms; historic archives of agricultural organisations and cooperatives; large collections of personal records and journals of farm workers; company accounts of farms across England; and films relating to the countryside and agriculture.
One of the characteristics which makes MERL unique is the wealth of the archives which enrich the museum’s collection. The new museum galleries will feature many special archives items, giving depth to the new displays. During the museum’s closure period, the reading room has remained open and researchers have continued to access the huge resources, so this seems like a good time to shout about this fascinating aspect of our collections.
We started thinking about different stories and collections that we hoped would feature in the interpretation in November 2013. The stories and key messages have not remained fixed over the two years but have changed and developed which means the selection of archives has also changed to reflect the new messages. We now feel we are close to the final selection of images, archives and films that will appear in the galleries next year.
The archives and photographs will help interpret the objects, provide context and explain how the objects were used graphically. The images vary in size from A4 to a full wall. Gallery 2, A year on the Farm features an Eric Guy photograph entitled “Their midday ration on a Winters day. ”
One section of Gallery 3 which focuses on ‘Grow your Own’ features this Sutton Seeds poster from around 1890 advertising vegetables.
At times, as a team it has been difficult as some items that have selected and we are really keen for a wider audience to see have not been selected for the final display. Sometimes there is not enough space in the gallery to display the items or other items fit with the wider interpretation of the gallery so the archives have not been selected.
However, in the galleries there are 10 cases in the galleries that have drawers! The intention is to display original archives in the drawers. The selection will change two or three times a year so we can display a range of items and visitors will see new collections the next time they visit. There has been quite a lot of discussion within the curatorial team working on Our Country Lives about whether visitors will open the drawers. I remain positive I think visitors will enjoy discovering the archives. Let there be drawers!