The MERL is going Further Afield

New approaches to co-curation with communities

Join Collections Researcher Tim Jerrome as he introduces our newest project at The MERL, Further Afield, which trials new approaches to community driven museum outputs, working with groups who have been historically underrepresented in the countryside.

It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing the countryside as a white, heteronormative and able-bodied place. The whiteness of the countryside is heavily tied to traditional romanticisation of farming and rurality, with assumptions that the same families of farmers have owned and worked the same land for decades or even centuries. This same assumption ties people of colour to towns, given that significant immigration took place during the years of the industrial revolution, when towns were constantly expanding and offering new opportunities, whereas farming developed at a slower pace. Furthermore, LGBTQ+ people are also pigeonholed as being ubiquitously urban in residence, due to a far stronger activist presence in towns and fewer queer gathering spaces in the countryside. In addition, significant barriers exist for people with disabilities in the countryside. These can include physical challenges, such as reduced wheelchair accessibility, and also fewer support networks for those with learning disabilities.

It is also easy to be unspecific with who believes and even encourages these stereotypes, but if we’re going to address the issue, that isn’t good enough. I subconsciously held these biases before I started working for the museum, and have truly had my eyes opened by the diversity of rural life over the last few years. The museum itself has, without any ill intention, reinforced these stereotypes as well. Just try typing “queer” or “disabled” into our online catalogue, and narrow your search to the Museum of English Rural Life collections. You’ll find almost nothing. For those who belong to one of these groups and want to explore their rural heritage, our catalogue, and by extension our collections, appear to have little to offer at first glance.

Painting of four white farm workers standing in front of agricultural vehicles
Across our collections, almost every artistic representation of an idyllic countryside is white, heteronormative and able-bodied. MERL 98/38

Yet it goes without saying that people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, and people with disabilities do live and work in the countryside, and most certainly have a place within our museum. This goes for both historic people, who were often persecuted during their time, and modern individuals and communities. Throughout our upcoming project, Further Afield, we are seeking to redress the balance. Our ultimate aim is to give people from historically marginalised communities a platform to add their chapter to the story of English rural life, in whatever form that may take!

This is not our first foray into uncovering hidden histories and improving representation at The MERL. Further Afield expands upon the success of Building Connections, a project which ran from 2020 – 2022, and sought to improve our digital offer as well as research themes relevant to underrepresented groups including decolonisation, migration, and LGBTQ+. Two pieces of work from this project, Changing Perspectives and Queer Constellations, provided direct inspiration for Further Afield. Additionally, Extra.Ordinary, researched by curatorial trainee Verity Shillabeer as a part of the Curating for Change program, was a key step forwards. These exhibitions cemented the idea that personal stories, particularly those from perspectives previously unexplored, result in excellent engagement from our audience, even after the exhibition in question has ended. I’ve had more enquiries about Queer Constellations than I’ve had for every other exhibition I’ve curated put together. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – people are more interesting than things.

Image of a grey riding helmet
As a part of Curating for Change, we acquired this broken riding helmet involved in a riding accident. We are hoping to expand our collections linked to disability, LGBTQ+ people, and people of colour.

As a result, Further Afield will put people and communities first. We’re not just going to be creating content and events and inviting people from underrepresented communities to be a part of them, as we have before. Instead, we will co-design outputs with community groups from across the English countryside, lending our curatorial expertise to their creative visions and stories. We’ll be working with the Dadima’s walking group, Rainbow Canopy and Inclusive Farm, all of whom are introduced briefly below.

Image of adults and children sewing and crafting
We have always done excellent work with our local community, such as this tote bag workshop using an old sewing machine. We now want to branch out – go further afield, so to speak.

Our partners

Dadima’s is a walking and educational nature group based in the Chilterns, which has a focus on cultural and inter-generational inclusivity. Dadima’s walks have a strong storytelling approach, where science, natural sciences and lived experiences connect. Each walk/event has a different rural theme, such as folklore, biodiversity, ancestral nature and wisdom. We first worked with Dr Geeta Ludhra, who leads Dadima’s, through Changing Perspectives, where she related how being in nature helps her to connect with her Hindu faith and Indian heritage. She would now like to build upon the success of the group’s recent South Asian Heritage Month storytelling event at the Chiltern’s Open Air Museum, and potentially replicate similar events at The MERL. Additionally, we have discussed the idea of several collections-based visits to the museum, focused on storytelling themes such as food, journeys, relationships and mothering. Geeta would like the outcomes of these visits to be published through an ebook.

Members of the Dadima's walking group standing in a field
The Dadima's group during a walk in the Chilterns.

Rainbow Canopy is a relatively new network for LGBTQ+ staff working for the Forestry Commission. Though their activity is still in its early stages, it has held several talks with guest speakers for its staff. It was through one of these talks that Rainbow Canopy first engaged with The MERL, as they were intrigued by the methodology and outcomes of Queer Constellations. Moving forward into Further Afield, we want to engage with their members around the country and work together to improve LGBTQ+ representation both within our displays and collections. Histories of LGBTQ+ rural people are famously hard to find so any inroads we can make into this would also be fascinating. One early idea for our work together is for a photographer or videographer to travel the country and document the work of Rainbow Canopy members. The outputs of this could then be displayed around the museum and retained in our archives.

Image of a pride flag sporting the Forestry Commission logo
The Forestry Commission, like much of the civil service, is striving for greater diversity

Inclusive Farm, currently based in Bedfordshire but soon expanding across the UK, is a company dedicated giving practical agricultural skills to people with disabilities. It was founded by Mike Duxbury, the first blind man to build a farm in England. His enterprise has attracted national attention in the few years of its operation, featuring in both Farmers Weekly and Countryfile. Given his past experience developing text to speech technology for Vodafone, Mike is keen to show how technology benefits farmers with disabilities. This applies to both past and future technology, with simple hand tools being easier to operate than heavy machinery, and also robotics and automation reducing the physical aspects of many tasks. We’ve discussed how disability is a topic not often featured at agricultural shows, and so we are considering how we can create some displays to address this. We may also broach the topic of guide dogs, and how they trained for the distractions of cities, not the countryside.

Image of a man with a tractor and a woman holding a small pig
Mike and his colleague Ness founded Inclusive Farm together in 2021.

Alongside the amazing work we will do to create new content, collections and stories with our community partners, Further Afield also recognises that we need to interrogate our existing collections for narratives of marginalisation. Why is it that our online catalogue contains so few stories of people with protected characteristics? Do none of the objects have these links, or were they simply not recorded on our catalogue? A team of volunteers will help us answer this question, by revisiting the paperwork created when our objects were initially acquired, some of which has not been looked at for decades. Hopefully these will reveal some diverse stories – and if not, at least an avenue of enquiry will be closed off.

Stay tuned for events and displays linked to Further Afield. In the meantime, visit the museum to enjoy our new exhibition, Hear our Voice in the Countryside, which trials some of these new approaches to community co-curation. If you have a story of people with protected characteristics flourishing in rural areas, we would love to hear from you!

Huge thanks to the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and Museums Association for funding this project. Click here to find out more about other work they have funded, which has allowed community creativity to flourish in the heritage sector up and down the country.

A logo for the Esmee Fairbairn Collections fund

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