Your country lives and your museum

Assistant Curator, Dr Ollie Douglas traces the Museum’s history of building links with communities and invites readers to get involved in our current project

In the 1950s, when the Museum of English Rural Life was first established, countryside people were experiencing a period of massive change. Of course, the lives of people who live and work in rural areas have never been unchanging. It was this sense of transformation that the Museum set out to capture by gathering evidence directly from farmers and others connected with the countryside. The first curators tried different ways to build links with these communities. They visited agricultural shows and events, appeared on the television, and spoke to country people with links to the University.

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The Museum’s stand at the Royal Agricultural Show, Nottingham, 1955

As a result of these early efforts, the collections, displays, and role of the Museum came to echo the interests and ideas of those who lay at the very heart of rural life and work. It rapidly amassed an amazing array of disused implements and equipment, information about traditional ways of working the land, and accounts of the social lives of rural people, past and present. These objects, archives, and stories were given to the Museum and have been held safely for the benefit of future generations.

As part of the Our Country Lives redevelopment project, we are keen to strengthen links with these ‘future generations’, including the urban people who live near the Museum and those rural communities whose heritage we still preserve. The project will transform the way both these sets of people can connect with their shared history through new displays, innovative interpretation and an exciting programme of activities.

In many ways there is little to separate us from the Museum’s founders. We still have a stand at the Berkshire Show every September and have made efforts in recent years to get out and about and build links with people who live, work, and use the countryside today. Like those early curators we are also keen to engage these groups in shaping our displays and activities. Do you have strong links to the countryside? Might you be able to help?

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Gathering memories from visitors to the Berkshire Show 2010 on our MERL and The Archers timeline

To ensure that our plans are relevant, interesting and focused on the type of issues that are important to present-day rural communities, we want to consult a range of people with links to farming and the countryside. If this is you and you would be happy to get involved in our new ‘Countryside Forum’, please contact Phillippa Heath. There are many different ways in which you can be involved so please do not worry if you only have a little time to give. We’re interested in hearing what you think, whatever your connection to the countryside, whether you have a farming background, are studying agriculture, have always lived and worked in the countryside, have ‘escaped to the country’ or enjoy leisure activities in the countryside.

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    We are looking forward to welcoming visitors back to The MERL galleries from Tuesday 18th May.

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    The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road

    Reading

    RG1 5EX

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