51 Voices: of Mice and Museums

Read our three newest Voices

51 Voices - The MERL is 70 project logo on a background of part of an O'Connell wallhanging from 1951

This January, The MERL embarked on 51 Voices, a new year-long project celebrating the Museum’s seventieth anniversary in 2021. Throughout the year, we will be working with a range of writers, artists and different communities to give contemporary voice to fifty-one objects and archives in The MERL collection connected in myriad ways to our founding year.

In this second monthly roundup of our 51 Voices work, join The MERL’s Anna Jones as she reflects on three of the fifty-one objects which were given Voice in February (now live on the exhibition page), and explores how they are resonant in our lives and changing world today.

51 Voices: FEBRUARY

In the month of love, with creatures coupling and all things Saint Valentine, it might seem strange (or maybe not?) to observe the three objects’ connection of conflict, and particularly war.

It is perhaps to be expected that in researching and considering the mid-century, to celebrate 70 years of The MERL, both the First and Second World War would be present – such is the shadow both events undoubtedly cast on life long after their armistice.

Specifically, with all the February objects, the skill that was applied to the craft of their creation reflected the skill their creator applied to the conduct of these wars. Object 5 photographer John Tarlton honed his skills during wartime service in the photographic unit of the RAF. Object 6 writer Frank Howard Lancum was a press officer for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries during the Second World War. And Object 7 illustrator Thomas Hennell’s combat operations as a war artist in mainland Europe and in the Far East resulted until his untimely death while still on active service in 1945.

But look at little closer, and there are also different conflicts bubbling here: the Lion and the Unicorn representing England and Scotland, an often uncomfortable, reluctant union; the disparity between male and female pay; an instruction to destroy rodent pests, balanced alongside the pleasure of watching harvest mice (‘furry atoms’); and the tension between industrial, scientific agricultural practices and  smaller, less mechanised farming. All conflicts we easily recognise and uneasily grapple with today.

For Object 5, ‘Building Connections’ Collections Researcher, Nicola Minney, delves into the story of a mid-century straw craftsman and his contribution towards the Festival of Britain. Nicola responds to ‘Lion and Unicorn’, a striking image of this celebrated maker and to the skilled photographer who took this portrait. She draws us into the interconnecting networks of creative life in one special corner of 1950s Essex.

And, hot off the press (or perhaps fresh from the binder), poet Obby Robinson makes a welcome return to The MERL with a new piece responding to the creativity of his fellow Essex folk, addressing the conflicted world of rural industry, and all while returning us fleetingly to the image of the heart.

This lion and unicorn were made by the master craftsman Fred Mizen. Though remarkable, the pieces were stored poorly in the basement of Selfridges after starring in an iconic Christmas window display, where they were eaten away by mice.
This straw lion and unicorn were created by the master craftsman Fred Mizen, who stars in this photo beside them. After featuring in a Selfridges Christmas window display, the pieces were stored poorly in the shop’s basement, where they were eaten by mice. Photo by John Tarlton. Object number MERL P TAR PH1/3/3/7
Professor Karen Sayer of Leeds Trinity University introduces us to the place of wildlife on mid-century farms with Object 6, ‘Wild Mammals and the Land’ (1951), Bulletin No. 150 from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Professor Sayer offers a critical overview of advice offered to the farming community of this period. Her fascinating exploration also introduces us to aspects of her recent MERL Fellowship work on rats and pest control, and to her ongoing research into mid-century farming as part of the FIELD research project team.

This booklet was Bulletin 150 from a series produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries (MAFF) during the 1940s and 1950s. These publications offered advice to farmers on management of land and livestock, and sometimes nature. Echoing this latter focus, Bulletin 140 (1948) had explored the topic of Wild Birds and the Land.
This booklet was Bulletin 150 from a series produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries (MAFF) during the 1940s and 1950s. These publications offered advice to farmers on management of land and livestock, and sometimes nature. Echoing this latter focus, Bulletin 140 (1948) had explored the topic of Wild Birds and the Land. MERL Library

Dr Roy Brigden, Keeper of the MERL for 30 years until his retirement in 2010 gives Voice to Object 7. He looks at Thomas Hennell’s ‘Drawing of The Hermitage’, which depicts some of the earliest items to be acquired in 1951, to help draw out some threads on the backstory of the Museum, and reflect on the collecting of objects which embody the skills of the past in the hope of pointing the way towards a sustainable future.

This drawing shows the interior of a hut that the interwar writer H. J. Massingham had built in the orchard of his home ‘Reddings’, in Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. The object collection seen stored in this hut was donated by him to The MERL in 1951.
This drawing shows the interior of a hut that the interwar writer H. J. Massingham had built in the orchard of his home ‘Reddings’, in Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire. The object collection seen stored in this hut was donated by him to The MERL in 1951. Object number MERL 85/59

Of mice and museums

All three February Voices speak of the importance of collections, particularly rural ones, to preserve rather than discard – to accumulate knowledge accruing from previous generations. As Dr Brigden observes: ‘Responding to change and dealing with change is part of the human condition, and one of the reasons why we have museums.’

We just wish that the staff at Selfridges, packing away Mizen’s ‘Lion and Unicorn’ to the basement after their 1960s famous Christmas window displays, had been more mindful of the importance of history, heritage and the place for such iconic items in museums. Or even just read Wild Mammals and the Land. Then maybe, just maybe, those incredible straw creatures – embodying strength and realism, fantasy and imagination – would be with us at The MERL and not nibbled to nothingness by mice.

With thanks to the support of Arts Council England and the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund for making all this possible.

Explore February’s 51 Voices.

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