The Commons: Re-enchanting the World

This project began in March 2020 and runs until January 2022. Generously funded by Arts Council England, this project connects The MERL with many new audiences and partners. An exciting group of creative commoners are helping us to focus on how the social and ecological challenges we currently face link back to complex histories of land ownership, gender rights, labour, and the wage economy, as well as a decline in communal life and subsistence living. Their new interventions in the Museum’s galleries offer the chance for us all to engage with the commons.

The ‘commons’ describes things we all share, such as air, water, and land. Loss of vital resources resources like these is happening in many parts of the world, often without our knowledge. As well as the legacies of colonialism and the impact of neocolonialism, the concept of commons also serves as a rallying cry to raise awareness of homegrown inequalities. Hooked to the history of land enclosures and presented in the homely context of a rural museum, these interventions will enable the Museum’s audiences to reconnect with, celebrate, and better understand the notion of commons.

Who are our creative commoners?

The events and artistic interventions that will emerge during this project will be coordinated by artists Catherine Morland and Amanda Couch and will stem from the following creative practitioners, as well as from the communities and audiences with whom they will be working.

Catherine Morland will use basketry and cordage — two of the earliest domestic and collaborative activities—as a way to foreground the lives of women, who often struggle most from the loss of commons. She will work with foraged materials, home-grown plants, discarded plastic as well as rush and dried water hyacinth to make an installation in the museum. She will also produce smaller sculptural pieces for display. Catherine will organise and contribute to a collection of breadbaskets made especially for the Commons Feast (by members of the Basketmakers’ Association. and other practitioners) as well as decorating the event with flowers grown in the MERL Gardens with the support of members of the Greater Reading Nepalese Community Association.

Catherine’s focus for audience development will be to work with specific community groups around the theme of reproductive labour. She also aims to make links with Reading’s Kenyan Diaspora Organisation connecting her research into contemporary Kenyan pastoralists that initiated the project.

Amanda Couch will form a community collective called ‘Becoming with Wheat’ (BwW). Together they will explore the collective act of ‘companioning’ with wheat, revealing how the human and non-human are interdependent. The BwW Community will work to grow wheat in specially-made raised beds in The MERL Garden and Amanda will exhibit films, anthotypes and sculptural masks in the galleries. This work is also supported by the University for the Creative Arts. She will partner with food designer Josefin Vargo to develop a Commons Feast for a Virtual Launch and an in-person event for the Heritage Open Day. The BwW Community will engage participants from local growing groups and audiences, including Reading Food Growing Network, the Mills Archive, and elsewhere.

Sigrid Holmwood will explore her contribution to the idea of the commons through dye plants: the knowledges and technologies surrounding them, and their colonial histories. Her ‘peasant painter’ persona will make calicos printed with plant dyes which will be on display in the galleries. Printed calicos or “chintzes,” were an Indian invention of which became immensely popular colonial commodities in Europe during the 17th and 18th century. The technique was eventually appropriated and became a driving force in early industrialisation in Europe. Sigrid’s project will develop these global and local connections through the common knowledge (and knowledge not held in common) of plant dyes. She will invite dye experts from around the world to talk about their work online, and in response to samples in the MERL archive, she will cultivate woad in the MERL gardens, and perform indigo extraction and pigment making workshops at various events throughout the project (IRL if possible, otherwise online).

Kelechi Anucha and Carl Gent will debut three new recordings of traditional English folk songs made over the past year in sculptural listening posts installed among the Museum’s collections. The sonic commons of English folk has proven a vessel for narrative and melody that survived the violent cultural destruction associated with the Enclosures Act. Kelechi and Carl have embedded new interpretations of a range of songs into sculptural listening posts that reflect the narrative content of the tracks. During the course of the exhibition, Kelechi and Carl will both perform some of these tracks and work closely with local church and refugee organisations in vocal workshops, tracing the histories and variances of folk music from their roots, on their routes through transnational traditions of hymn singing, and acknowledging histories of British imperialism and colonisation.

Sam Wallman will design a full colour graphic banner on the Commons theme, which will be produced large-scale and exhibited in the museum galleries, as well as printed as a free poster for visitors to take away. As a cartoonist, comic-journalist and labour organiser based in Australia, Sam’s contribution to the project will be in the format of a graphic novel with bite sized text provided an illustrated explanation of the Commons to visitors to The MERL. Parts of the design will also form a major part of the branding of the project.