51 Voices

51 Voices logo

The MERL is 70 | 51 Voices | 51 Objects

To mark our 70th year, we will be exploring objects connected to 1951, the year the Museum was established.

We will be working with artists and writers from many different communities and backgrounds to link these items to the priorities and passions of the past, present, and future.

Throughout 2021, an exciting array of Voices will be mapped to 51 fascinating objects, enabling reflection on mid-century ideas. By working with different people and communities, collections will be re-imagined with surprising and perhaps challenging responses.

Below, find out more about 51 Voices by clicking the top three images, or explore the new objects and Voices that we will be revealing here week by week and month by month from January to December 2021.

The MERL is 70!
51 Voices
51 Objects
1. Model Thresher
2. Sheep bell
3. Model pub
4. Festival Logo
5. Lion and Unicorn
6. Wild Mammals Bulletin
7. The Hermitage
8. Festival Guide
The MERL is 70!

The MERL is 70!

Our Museum was founded by the University of Reading in 1951, to help capture changes to the English countryside. They worked closely with rural people to safeguard history through collections. Over seven decades The MERL grew into a leading site for understanding food, farming, craft, and countryside. Over the years it has played a vital role in delivering exciting public activities, teaching, and research. Today’s team works alongside rural and urban communities, engaging them in country life, past and present.


This image features model ploughs from the 1951 Festival of Britain reused on The MERL’s 1952 trade stand. The same banner is now displayed in our Collecting Rural England gallery.

Photograph (MERL 35/1566); Banner (MERL 2014/20)

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51 Voices

51 Voices

Over the coming year, we will welcome diverse contributors to explore, re-imagine, and respond to one of 51 objects. This might involve writing, performance, film, growing, making, and more. These Voices will respond to vital issues such as landscape, food, tradition, health, climate, access, and our post-colonial world. Stories will be unlocked and communities will help re-interpret our holdings. New Voices will play a pivotal role in shaping the Museum, as we turn 70, and beyond.


This image shows a straw heart made by Fred Mizen for the Festival of Britain (MERL 52/79) Our project will connect the skill of mid-century makers like him to creativity today.

Straw craft heart (MERL 52/79)

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51 Objects

51 Objects

We’ve chosen outstanding 1951-related objects. Participants will explore them to reveal fascinating stories and link them to today’s passions and priorities. They include original items from that iconic moment of renewal, the Festival of Britain. 70 years on we hope to reactivate these materials as part of fresh conversations about reconstruction and regeneration. Voices responding to these objects will be presented in a blend of online and actual activity.


This image shows a design by Michael O’Connell for one of a series of wall-hangings for the Festival of Britain (MERL 2009/64/5; MERL 63/18/7). Later in 2021 we’ll be revealing how his finished artworks travelled further afield, bringing rural England to a very unexpected place indeed!

Wall-hanging design (MERL 2009/64/5)

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1. Model Thresher

1. Model Thresher

Barrett, Exall and Andrews, Model threshing machine, 1847


This model was the second object to be listed as part of The MERL collection in 1951. It was made by Reading-based company Barrett, Exall and Andrews in 1847, to demonstrate a horse-powered threshing machine. In 1851, exactly a century before it reached The MERL, the company exhibited this technology at the Great Exhibition. Its rich history reveals stories of display, education, unrest, and colonialism.

Click here for a detailed exploration of this model thresher by Curator of MERL Collections, Dr Ollie Douglas.

Click here to see this object in an online exhibition about Rural Protest, developed by Tim Jerrome.

Model thresher (MERL 51/2)

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2. Sheep bell

2. Sheep bell

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Sheep bell used as theatre prop, 1950s


This bell was made in the early 1950s at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. The story of this foundry highlights the precarious state of heritage crafts. Designed for a sheep, this bell found a different purpose, as a prop in a pioneering London theatre. Its story reveals how rural things link to urban makers, and how the countryside plays a role in the arts.

Click here for a detailed exploration of this sheep bell by Associate Director – Archive Services, Guy Baxter.

Hear the sound of this bell from 1:20 in this film by artist Felicity Ford.

Sheep bell (MERL 54/92)

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3. Model pub

3. Model pub

Danbury Mint, Model pub from The Archers radio serial


The Archers was first broadcast nationally on the day that The MERL was founded. It tells the story of life in the fictional village of Ambridge. This model of the fictional pub The Bull was based on a real pub that the creator of The Archers liked. The Archers approach to broadcasting has been copied in many different parts of the world.

Read a more detailed examination of this collection object by Director of The MERL, Kate Arnold-Forster.

Click here to see display panels from The MERL and The Archers joint 60th anniversary exhibition in 2011.

Model pub (2019/85)

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4. Festival Logo

4. Festival Logo

Michael O’Connell, Festival of Britain logo wall-hanging, circa 1951


In 1948, Abram Games won a competition to create a logo for the Festival of Britain. His iconic design is reproduced here by another Festival creative contributor, artist Michael O’Connell. It is unclear if this was for practice or if it was intended as a display piece. The logo has recently been reimagined again by Richard Littler in a satirical ‘Festival of Brexit Britain’ poster.

Click here for a more detailed examination of this logo by Associate Director – Curatorial and Public Engagement, Isabel Hughes.

Festival Logo (96/117)

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5. Lion and Unicorn

5. Lion and Unicorn

John Tarlton, Fred Mizen with Lion and Unicorn sculptures, 1951


These photographs by Essex photographer John Tarlton show craftsman Fred Mizen beside the largest pieces of straw sculpture that he made for the Festival of Britain. His work was a blend of different traditions. These pieces symbolised the Union and hinted at ‘national character’. Mizen lived in Great Bardfield, Essex, which was home to many artists in the 1950s.

Click here for thoughts and stories linked to this photograph from ‘Building Connections’ Project Officer, Nicola Minney.

Click here to read an exciting new poem by Obby Robinson, as written in response to Fred Mizen’s strawcraft.

 

Lion and Unicorn photographs (P TAR PH1/3/3/7/1-2)

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6. Wild Mammals Bulletin

6. Wild Mammals Bulletin

F. H. Lancum, Wild Mammals and the Land (London: HMSO, 1951)


This booklet was one of a series created to advise farmers on land, livestock, and nature. Some of the latest farming techniques were harmful to the environment. Nevertheless, the idea of ‘land’ was important and farmers were starting to be seen as custodians of the countryside.

Click here for a detailed exploration of this bulletin by MERL Fellow, Professor Karen Sayer.

Click here for a timeline of twentieth century farming based on research by Karen and others.

MERL Library

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7. The Hermitage

7. The Hermitage

Thomas Hennell, Drawing of the Hermitage, 1939


This drawing shows a hut belonging to the writer H. J. Massingham called ‘The Hermitage’. He acquired the artefacts in this hut while researching his 1939 book Country Relics. He donated them to The MERL in 1951. The book was illustrated by Thomas Hennell, creator of this drawing, with images of tools, people, and places. Hennell was a countryman at heart. he later worked as a war artist during the Second World War and sadly died in service in Java in 1945.

Drawing by Thomas Hennell (MERL 85/59)

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8. Festival Guide

8. Festival Guide

Ian Cox, The South Bank Exhibition: A Guide to the Story It Tells (London: HMSO, 1951)


For many visitors who flocked to the Festival of Britain, this souvenir guide provided a lasting reminder of the key highlights of this national celebration. Adorned with the striking Festival logo, the pages inside revealed routes through the site’s ‘continuous story’ and summaries of each themed area. From tinned peas to major infrastructure, the advertisements within  offered a snapshot of social, cultural, domestic, and industrial life in mid-century Britain.

MERL Library 1770-COX

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