Reading is home to a museum and archive collection of international significance that will be displayed in its full glory later this year. The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) on Redlands Road contains an extensive collection of agricultural objects and aims to become a social hub as well as a centre of academic research.
The museum’s entire holdings are designated by the Arts Council of England, who say :
It is both a public resource and an academic research centre, preserving designated collections of national and international significance.
The museum want to make their collection more relevant to people today and encourage greater public use once they fully reopen later this year.
“We’re trying to become somewhere that people want to come back to,” said Alison Hilton, MERL marketing officer. “You will be able to see the museum, have a coffee and some cake, visit our gardens and come back again to explore more another time.”
The museum has a large, enclosed and quiet garden within which they hope to run community projects such as allotments and which they’d like to become a destination for visitors, such as local residents, people working in the area and patients from the nearby Royal Berkshire Hospital.
Our Country Lives
“We’re redisplaying the collection in nine galleries so we can tackle different themes and explore the relevance of rural life, past and present, to our modern and urban lives,” said Phillippa Heath, MERL audience development project manager.
“We’re thinking about the interrelationship between town and country and how some of the things we perceive historically as originating in the country actually began in the town, and vice versa.”
“We’re challenging the way people think about the countryside and addressing more contemporary issues such as how we use the countryside, who owns it and what it’s for,” said Alison Hilton.
“We’re not just presenting the machinery, agricultural implements and tools that people these days may not relate to, but more of the stories behind them, putting them in a historical context. We can look at how and why things have changed and how things might change in the future.”
The museum has a nationally significant collection of 29 wagons, 22 of which will be presented together in their own gallery.
“If they are put into context, we can tell so much more about the people who made them and used them, the landscapes they worked in, their development over time and why they’re different.” said Phillippa Heath.
The museum will soon have an expanded education studio that can cater for a class of 30 and they are particularly interested in working with secondary schools.
“We’re at an early stage and quite keen to set up a teachers’ forum to work out ways our collections can fit into the national curriculum,” said Phillippa Heath. “We’d love to see more involvement from schools.”
Festival of Britain wall hangings
“They’re considered quite important,” said Phillippa Heath. “Each of the six is of a different county or region and they haven’t been on public display since 1951. Two of the hangings, Cheshire and Kent, have been conserved and one of those will go on display in the summer.”
“We’re going to run a public campaign to choose which tapestry goes on display first,” said Alison Hilton. “We’ve already been asking people to pick out features that represent each county and tell us what they like about both depictions. We’re going to blog about each one, look at farming in each county and talk to some people from Kent and from Cheshire about rural life there and ask the public to vote.”
History of the museum
In the late 1940s Reading University staff started to collect redundant agricultural equipment that risked being lost forever as farming rapidly industrialised. This collection became MERL in 1951, originally housed in Whiteknights House, and opened to the public in 1955. It moved to larger accommodation on Chancellor’s Way in 1964 where it stayed until 2005.
The museum now occupies a grade II listed building on Redlands Road designed by Alfred Waterhouse in 1880 as a home for Alfred Palmer (of Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits). The building, originally called East Thorpe, became St Andrew’s Hostel for women students from 1911 until 1969, and then a mixed hall until 2001. A modern purpose-built gallery was added to the listed building when the museum moved in.