A week at The MERL: our reflections on COP26

With COP26 underway in Glasgow, learn about the many different ways that communities and groups at The MERL are exploring climate change and related subjects.

At COP26, global politicians, business leaders, activists, journalists, and many others have convened in Glasgow to explore solutions to the climate crisis. Meanwhile, in the UK’s countryside, our farmers are hard at work, many of them furthering the regenerative agricultural approaches that increasingly define their sector.

A farmer ploughing a field.
Farming is demanding and often solitary work. Here, a farmer works the soil with a tractor-drawn plough. (MERL P DX289 PH1/945)

Comparatively few of these agriculturalists are present in the Glasgow discussions. Instead, they are busy in our farmyards and fields, their voices often absent from debates that could have far-reaching implications for their working lives, not to mention our shopping and dining habits, and our landscapes.

A week at The MERL

As discussions in Glasgow unfolded, a busy and bustling week was underway at The MERL, at a remove from both these worlds, filled with moments related to the changing climate – its past and its future – as well as ones of optimism and hope.

  • Our youngest audience enjoyed a special ‘Frugal Frivolities’ session about reducing, reusing, and recycling.
  • A teaching session focused on material histories by looking at many different pairs of shoes from our collection.
  • Jackie Oates, a long-time friend of The MERL and a former musician-in-residence, led a singing session for locals whose lives have been upended by the pandemic, as part of our Thriving Communities project.
  • A group of Royal Agricultural University students visited the museum for a research session, getting hands-on with our collections and exploring the future of global development.
  • I joined an online conference of fellow curators in Prague to discuss contemporary challenges in agricultural museums.
  • My colleagues in our learning team liaised with one of our local secondary schools who are working on the Earth Shot Prize with their students, exploring ways that museum collections can both demonstrate and act as inspiration for human ingenuity.
  • And the wider team continued to discuss our 70th anniversary project, 51 Voices.

All in a week’s work.

A display from our Frugal Frivolities event.
Our Frugal Frivolities event invited our youngest visitors to learn about recycling, and the environmental impact we all make, through crafts, play, and storytelling.

Anxieties, creativity, and hope

The global challenges we face can seem all-pervading, ever-present, and insurmountable. I have been struggling with mounting climate anxiety, worrying about how everything is now shaped and defined by its environmental impact. However, looking back on this single week, what strikes me the most is that our encounters with different audiences matter. No matter how small-scale, or how local, each touched on themes pertinent to the environmental crisis and made a difference in people’s lives.

Our 51 Voices anniversary project reminds us to think about how echoes of decisions made in years gone by continue to shape our lives in the present. And whilst much of what our forebears did turned out to have disastrous consequences, there are also stories of regeneration to be found in the rural past.

A copy of the Country Code from The MERL collection.
This edition of the Country Code, featured in 51 Voices, was published in 1951. It was produced following the creation of the UK’s National Parks under the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. At the time of its publication, it was heralded by a member of the House of Lords as ‘the best fourpenny-worth of common sense he had ever read’. Its guidance has since become an established part of British culture, and has long been used as a familiar tool to help manage visitor behaviour in the countryside. (MERL SR OSS ET3/22)

In my conference call with my colleagues in Prague, I emphasised a similar message of optimism, as I shared  the hopeful ideas that emerged from the congress hosted at The MERL in July of the International Association of Agricultural Museums. And in a lovely act of humanity and alliance, our friends in Prague invited us to join them for the International Council of Museums General Conference that they host in 2022. Building on the urgent business of COP26, and of our collective efforts to regroup in a (hopefully) post-pandemic world, this will focus on ‘The Power of Museums’ to respond to twenty-first-century challenges.

The global development students who visited us from the Royal Agricultural University were introduced to the idea that the museum can offer insight into a problematic concept of progression that led us blindly towards the self-inflicted harm of the climate crisis. They toured our galleries searching for evidence of colonial complexity in farming systems, and spotted hints and potential of the regenerative value of combining new sustainable approaches with the best of our agricultural past. A cohort including people from India, Nepal, Germany, the USA, Nigeria, the UK, and elsewhere explained historic farm tools to each other and debated the merits and pitfalls of technological determinism.

As I stood in our conference room, enjoying a student from Haryana using nineteenth-century English equipment to demonstrate traditional rice-cleaning techniques still occasionally used in his own community, at the other end of The MERL people were bursting into song. I wasn’t lucky enough to hear the workshop led by Jackie Oates, but I am familiar enough with her amazing talent to know that melodies sweet and haunting will have filled the Our Country Lives gallery. I certainly heard from colleagues of the amazing, powerful, and personal stories that people shared of their own COVID experiences and journeys. These feel like urgent and needful voices of a different kind, showing how creativity can serve as a vital part of the process of healing. Perhaps another useful message for those financial and political players gathering in Glasgow.

Jackie Oates has brought her beautiful music to The MERL on many occasions. This photo is from a 2019 visit in a session with the museum knitting group, the Mewes Knitters.

Moving from songs in the air to feet on the ground, the student group exploring the footwear in our collection – including ones from the Women’s Land Army, rural children, and farm labourers – used our objects as a tool for thinking imaginatively about our material-driven worlds. Shoes feel like a powerful metaphor for the disarming and overly simplistic notion of our carbon footprints. They can remind us that, if we don’t face up to these individual micro-histories and change the way we live, then the heavy footprints of our climate-damaging ways of life will stamp out the hope we so desperately need.

Stories from many walks of rural life are told through the footwear in our collections. These heavy black boots were made during WW2 and used by the donor in Surrey when he was contract threshing. They feature a style known as the Shepherds last, with a curved sole that made them effective for hill walking. (MERL 88/71/1-2)

Lastly, the voices of young people and young activists have been at the heart of the climate movement, and deserve a much more equal voice in both the media and at the meeting table. Our Earth Shot Prize work with local secondary schools is a vital step in ensuring that ageing curators like me continue to listen to the voices of the future. And it feels important to spare a thought for our youngest visitors and our Friday Fledglings, because just as the material things of the past are handed down through generations, and just as we received the material impacts of decisions made by our predecessors, these under-fives will inherit the world that we shape and leave behind for them.

Three of our young visitors try their hand at crafts during our Frugal Frivolities event, exploring recycling and environmental impact through making and play.

Crafting a sustainable future

If activities at The MERL over the past week have taught me anything, it is that we need a combination of solutions, emerging in tandem, from different corners of the world and from different walks of life. We need local and tailored approaches that fit regional cultures, techniques, and environmental needs. Super-sized approaches to the technologies and techniques of producing our food didn’t work that well in the past, so one-size-fits-all approaches to changing those systems are likely to fail in the future

The solutions to the climate crisis will, of course, be about big business changes and political commitments. But they will also be about individuals and the decisions they make. We must let our farmers help solve these problems, listen and work with people from all walks of life, and pay heed to the lessons we can learn from looking to our farming past, so that we can work towards a hopeful future. And my experiences with many different groups in this busy week has left me optimistic of achieving that.

As COP26 draws to a close, we will be exploring climate change with our youngest audience, the museum’s under-fives group, Friday Fledglings. In the session on Friday 12th November, we are asking our Fledgling to look at a book by Vita Sackville-West in The MERL collection, In Your Garden (1951), and think about the role that gardens and gardening have in creating and maintaining natural habitats.

Find out more about Friday Fledglings and 51 Voices.

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