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
9. Horse Brass
10. Groundnut Film
11. The Country Year
12. Miller's Wagon
13. A Land
14. Death to Pests
15. Our Beautiful Island
16. Obstetric Forceps
17. Farm Epic
18. Landscape Leader
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)

close
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)

close
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)

close
1. Model Thresher

1. Model Thresher

Barrett, Exall & Andrewes, 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 & Andrewes 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)

close
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)

close
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)

close
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)

close
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)

close
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

close
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)

close
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

close
9. Horse Brass

9. Horse Brass

Armac Brassworks, Festival of Britain horse brass, 1951


Brasses like this were originally made to adorn heavy horse harness. This example is one of many souvenirs sold to commemorate the Festival of Britain. It reminded visitors of the interwar dependence on animal power and helped to reveal the progress shown by tractors on display. Horse brasses are now highly collectible and are synonymous with rural nostalgia. They feature in pubs and countryside collections alike. This brass was acquired from the dispersal of a private collection in 2011 but the Museum also acquired many during its foundational year.

Click here to find out how this item links to fascinating new research by PhD Student Madison Johnson.

MERL 2011/8/3

close
10. Groundnut Film

10. Groundnut Film

Colour film, The Groundnut Scheme at Kongwa, Tanganyika, 1948


The Groundnut Scheme was a disastrous attempt by the British Government to cultivate large tracts of land in East Africa. It aimed to solve cooking oil shortages in Britain and reduce rural depopulation in Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). The project failed to account for local knowledge, land, or climate. This film captures activity underway, before the Scheme was abandoned in January 1951. This was the same month that The MERL was established.

You can watch the film, using the University of Reading Virtual Reading Room.

Click here to read reflections on the Scheme from PhD researcher Atenchong Talleh Nkobou.

View an online exhibition about the Scheme, developed with the help of History students from the University of Reading.

MERL TR 17RAN PH6/49

close
11. The Country Year

11. The Country Year

Barry Evans and William Kempster, Designs for The Country Year, 1951


The MERL holds five preparatory designs for an exhibit called The Country Year, which featured in the Country Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. The exhibit had 12 panels showing the countryside month by month. These surviving sketches show lambing, haymaking, harvesting, potato-lifting, and ploughing. After the Festival ended the full-size artworks were given to The MERL. They appeared in its trade stand at the Royal Show in 1952. Sadly these originals were lost in the 1950s.

Click here for an amazing creative response from artist Lisa-Marie Gibbs and Downshire House.

Click here to read some reflections on these artworks from Dr Naomi Lebens, Curator of University Art Collections.

 

MERL 2019/3-7

close
12. Miller's Wagon

12. Miller's Wagon

Meadcroft of Welwyn et. al., Miller’s wagon, circa 1880


This wagon belonged to a miller and was used to transport grain and flour. It was made by Meadcroft, using an axle by Stenning, and with a cover by Peddar of Luton. When other means of transport took over, vehicles like this came under threat of disposal. In its early years The MERL played a major role in saving wagons from destruction. Unlike many others, this example had been carefully stored when it was first removed from use. In 1951 it was purchased by the Museum for £5.

Click here to find out more about conservation of this wagon from Collections Care Manager Fred van de Geer.

MERL 51/1295

close
13. A Land

13. A Land

Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land (London: Cresset Press, 1951)


Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes convened the People of Britain pavilion at the Festival of Britain. Published in the same year, this book told a similar story of land, migration, and of successive incomers shaping British ways of life. However, the real story was also one of influences that were not yet acknowledged. The idea that successive migrations from Europe were the lifeblood of the modern nation did not match the changing cultures of a post-war and post-Windrush Britain.

Click here for a detailed exploration of Hawkes’ book and Festival work by Dr Amara Thornton.

MERL Library 1840-HAW

close
14. Death to Pests

14. Death to Pests

Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Death to Pests poster, 1951


This poster encouraged growers to combat common vegetable pests. Crop protection was part of national food security in the postwar period. The poster was designed to evoke the Second World War. The figure at the top wore a steel helmet and the language echoed wartime propaganda. Farming at this time was on the cusp of using many more synthetic pest management methods. Such treatments would rapidly become common. Organic alternatives would take far longer to take hold.

Click here for a fascinating examination of this poster by Dr Sabine Clarke of the University of York.

Watch this space for an amazing creative response to this poster, which is almost ready to share…

MERL 2010/149

close
15. Our Beautiful Island

15. Our Beautiful Island

Tower Press, Our Beautiful Island jigsaw puzzle, circa 1951


This puzzle shows the countryside as a rural idyll, timeless and nostalgic. Similar images appear on many other jigsaw puzzles. It is likely that this ‘Cottage in Somerset’ was (and perhaps still is) a real building. The puzzle dates to 1951 or shortly thereafter. We know this because flyers inside the box refer to the ‘topicality’ of Tower Press puzzles and also to the ‘King and the pageantry of the Festival’. This is a reference to George VI and his patronage of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

Click here for more on this puzzle and the ‘rural idyll’ by Dr Alex Arnall of the University of Reading.

MERL 2012/283/1-4

close
16. Obstetric Forceps

16. Obstetric Forceps

Stainless steel obstetric forceps, 1950s


These forceps are on loan to The MERL from the Berkshire Medical History Centre, which is based at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. They were used by a General Practice doctor in the mid-twentieth century when attending home births. Steel forceps were introduced in the interwar period and this set was in active use in the 1950s. The interlocking pieces join together to help guide the baby from the birth canal. This same period was also marked by a baby boom and by the early years of the National Health Service, which was formed in 1948.

Read a fascinating exploration of the forceps written by our fantastic volunteer Gillian.

Click here to explore an amazing creative response by artist Beatty Hallas and families near and far.

Image © Berkshire Medical History Centre

close
17. Farm Epic

17. Farm Epic

Anthony Bernard Lees, Farm Epic (circa 1951)


This booklet describes the role of the ‘Ferguson System’ on a Cotswold farm, in a report that doubles as a tractor advertisement. In exploring mid-century technologies, author Anthony Bernard Lees revisits a wartime era of farm heroism hinted at by the silhouette on the cover. The same Ferguson machinery also featured prominently in the Festival of Britain and in early episodes of BBC radio serial The Archers. The ‘little grey Fergie’ tractor was a familiar farming touchstone.

Click here to read The Archers actor Tim Bentinck share his own epic Ferguson memories.

Watch this space for a creative response set to repurpose the Farm Epic text in amazing new ways…

MERL LIBRARY PAMPHLET 3680 BOX 1/11

close
18. Landscape Leader

18. Landscape Leader

Announcement, ‘The New President – Miss Brenda Colvin’, 1951


In 1951 Brenda Colvin became the first female president of the Institute of Landscape Architects. Their Journal announcement included a portrait, biography, and her presidential address. Colvin had established her practice in 1922. In the 1950s she began to take on infrastructural commissions such as power stations. She worked tirelessly into her 70s with the aim of providing future generations with spaces to both enjoy and to care for.

Click here to explore Brenda Colvin’s legacy in a piece by landscape architect Hal Moggridge.

MERL Library PER Open Access Jou/Ins-L

close