Over recent years, thanks to the attention of influencers such as J. K. Rowling and a massive and supportive social media following, The MERL has become known for its forays into the beastlier facets of the farm. This has provided us with a visual petting zoo of trousered chickens and tragic mice, colossal rams, curious cats, cultured ducks, bullish behemoths, and other farmyard favourites.
Over this same time we’ve played host to PhD students exploring histories of heavy horses, fat cow portraiture, and animal health on the farm. We’ve devoted art residencies and exhibitions to creatures great and small. These include the recent SIRE, artist Maria McKinney’s distractingly colourful take on artificial insemination, genetics, and cattle-breeding (currently extended to 27 October).
In short, we rather like looking at, talking about, and sharing the varied histories of animals and it seems that our visitors and our followers seem to like it too. As several of these crittersome examples—such as the massive beasts in SIRE and our absolute unit of viral fame—show, we don’t think you can ever have too much of a good thing. So with this in mind we’ve gathered our flocks and hefted you a densely-packed pen full of autumn activity on an animals theme.
Autumn 2019 Programme
We kick off at this year’s Berkshire Show. Join us if you can in our Sensory Corner on the University of Reading’s stand where we’ll be offering visitors the chance to sit on a quad bike and gather a virtual flock, as well as to meet and mingle with ‘The Mewes Knitters’ whose woolly stitches provide regular animal-themed inspiration back at the Museum. They’ve even been cultivating a new and exciting fieldy fleece for a rather familiar Texel sheep. We’ll also be joined by specialists in endemic livestock disease from FIELD_WT, a major project in which the Museum is a partner, who’ll be sharing oral histories, historic photos, and sheep-related objects.
field sheep pic
From 14 September, the next exciting exhibition developed by Museums Partnership Reading – the project that sees us working with our colleagues at Reading Museum – will take visitors on an Animal journey through different art forms from around the world. On loan from The MERL there’ll be a few fat beasts and some fine animal-shaped examples of straw craft, all presented alongside crittersome stuff from Reading Museum’s own rich holdings. Visit their website to check out related programmes on offer.
Over the next couple of months at The MERL we’ll be welcoming lots of fascinating experts familiar with our collections to deliver Seminars on farm animals. These include the amazing PhD researchers mentioned above, as well as leading historians from FIELD_WT. A couple of unfarmy serpents have also slithered into our autumn programme in the form of a talk about garden designer Geoffrey Jellicoe, arranged in partnership with FOLAR. As well as being serpent-shaped, Jellicoe’s famous gardens in Hemel Hempstead are a haven for urban wildlife, so no doubt host to a few other animals too.
It’s time for some animal-themed family activities at half term and from 6 November we’ll be serving up a hive of goodies from the MERL Library’s recently acquired Cowan Bee Collection in the Romance of the Hive display. If you pop in to see this or to take part in any other MERL-based activities in this wider programme you can also check out The MERL Garden to see what creatures call it home.
On 7 November we welcome Jimmy Doherty of TV’s Jimmy’s Farm fame who, in his capacity as President of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, will deliver this year’s MERL Annual Lecture on ‘Rare Breeds and Food.’ He’ll be talking turkey, pigs, breed protection, food, and a whole lot more.
On 21 November we’ll be drawing all this critter-filled content together for a MERL Late celebration of Animal Magic as part of the Being Human festival of the humanities. So why not join us to help explore how creatures big and small, domesticated and wild, play a part in our lives and how we help shape theirs.
And bringing the autumn programme to a close, we have two chances to enjoy a one-day workshop on Poultry Mania Past and Present, one here at The MERL and the other at Harper Adams University, to coincide with the nearby National Poultry Show. So if chickens are your thing – the feathered not the trousered variety – then why not get online and book now?
One final note… If any of you think we are simply flogging a dead horse here with all this animal content you are probably right. In fact, pretty much all the horses and other animals we’ll be talking about are long dead anyway. But being the busy little bees we are, we’ll be enthusiastically telling their stories till the cows come home. Don’t forget to follow our us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to catch sightings of all of the most fantastic beasts. And if our friend J. K. Rowling is still wondering – The MERL, that’s where to find them!
written by Dr Ollie Douglas, Curator of MERL Collections