Our agricultural museum goes intergalatic (or global, at least)

Or ...The MERL hosts Congress of the Association of International Agricultural Museums

Written by Dr Ollie, Douglas, Curator of The MERL Collections.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Forty-five years ago, as George Lucas started to film the stellar tale of an intergalactic farm-boy’s struggle against an evil empire, here in Reading things were also hotting up. In some ways, quite literally. Perhaps more memorably for many farmers than the first scenes of Star Wars, this was a year marked by extreme weather. So much so that its middle months would become known as the ‘hot summer of ‘76.’ This was an apt title. It was summer. It was 1976. And it was unexpectedly and (for the farming community at least) disastrously and damagingly hot. Drought ensued. Crops wilted. And for some of our museum forebears, telling the story of why rural and agricultural life matters suddenly seemed ever more important.

Echoing the kind of unmatched British creativity inherent in the naming of the ‘hot summer of ‘76’, the wondrous Museum of English Rural Life (this being a museum devoted to the story of rural life in England) was just turning 25. Founded in 1951 (celebrating its seventieth birthday this year), and better known as ‘The MERL’, this museum was just marking a quarter of a century of trailblazing its merry way through the rural history scene. But it was far from alone, for over in the east of England, in a county called Norfolk that some have described as not dissimilar to a ‘galaxy far, far away’, rebel forces were busy forming a new museum at a place called Gressenhall. In fact, as shown by the robust membership of the Rural Museums Network formed some decades later, museums of rural life were beginning to spring up across England. The imperial hold of the University of Reading’s closest equivalent to a kind of public engagement and rural pedagogy ‘Death Star’, The MERL, was beginning to loosen.

Later that same year, The MERL played host to a fiery global gathering of such niche interest that we could probably describe it as ‘close-to-secret’. This was the Congress of the International Association of Agricultural Museums (AIMA), a special group of folk from across the world who met from time to time to share ideas and interests (and probably to argue about how to spell important things like plough/plow and wagon/waggon). The AIMA was led by a group of Jedi-like overlords called the ‘Praesidium’ and was inherently political, having been founded as a way to facilitate intellectual dialogue between East and West. It was a kind of Cold War agricultural history club where people could discuss the latest findings in the study of rural technology, share their experiences of setting up living history farm sites, and visit institutions and collections similar to their own but housed in other parts of the world.

Fast forward to 2021, and The MERL has gone viral, spreading its unique Absolute Unit of a message about farming heritage across the rural history cinematic universe. And finally, after a 45 year long wait, museum-based agricultural history is finally coming home. Or, at the very least, the AIMA is coming back to Reading to hold its nineteenth international Congress – AIMA 2021 – at The MERL.

This time round, the current President and Vice-President of AIMA, The MERL’s own Ollie Douglas and Isabel Hughes, will host their fellow agricultural museum colleagues online as together they explore the theme of ‘Past and Future Agricultures’.

The Cold War may be over, and the AIMA may no longer refer to its Executive Committee as the ‘Praesidium’, but the group still has much to offer. In a world reeling from the impact of a global pandemic, grappling with the implications of climate breakdown, and seeking solutions to the growing challenge of food security, the AIMA is a group of international peers who are continuing their long tradition of sharing knowledge and ideas, and of finding new ways to keep rural history fresh, relevant, and of value to everyone. And, they are sufficiently niche and highly specialist that, like any robust Jedi council, they remain ‘close-to-secret’.

So, whether you are a rural kid from Tatooine looking for adventure, a curator from Coruscant, an educator, director, communicator, attendant, farm manager, conservator, archivist, receptionist, librarian or otherwise work as part of the amazingly diverse teams that manage the world’s museums of agriculture, then why not consider joining the AIMA and benefiting from free participation in this unique and inspiring digital gathering?

The programme is online and has something for everyone. Well, certainly something for everyone involved in museums of farming life. So, no matter how many parsecs away from Reading you are, please register for the hottest ticket of 2021 and join us on Zoom from 22 to 26 of July.

May the horse be with you.

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