I’m am ashamed to say that I judged a museum by its title. The Museum of English Rural Life (abbreviated to MERL) just doesn’t sound too exciting unless you have an unhealthy attraction to farm yards. I grew up in the countryside and my first word was ‘tractor’, you’d think I’d be the target audience; but I just wasn’t sold . . . it’s nice when your wrongly negative assumptions are blown away.
I’ve been tardy. I’m ashamed to say it’s just been too sunny to ‘museum’. I have not blogged in a while. I’ve not been too lazy though (honest). I have been busy working full time in the heritage sector and have also just committed and gone through the training to be an object handling volunteer at a local museum too. This is a poor excuse not to have visited anywhere new for so long. Today was the day I was broke the cycle.
The MERL is one of the University of Reading museums. It reopened after a £3 million redevelopment project that has resulted in a very well thought out, attractive and informative space. The collection was established by academics in the department of agriculture at the university in 1951, when it was realised that there were massive changes occurring in the rapidly changing countryside post World War II.
The one thing that stands out in the museum is a sense of community and the stories of everyday individuals. There was a co-curated case displaying a photography project of Reading through the eyes of local refugees. There is an area called ‘the nook’, a comfortable space for conversation, decorated with objects chosen by Reading University students.
There are personal stories everywhere you turn. There are examples of interpretation that has been written with the aid of local groups. Items are not just refined to cases and floor spaces, colour, objects and images are spread up the walls. There is a really nice way of dividing one gallery with a glass window that is covered with a vinyl map, allowing the space to be divided, but you can see the gallery beyond.
The modern cases are very well designed. Low, so they are more accessible for wheelchair users and smaller children. They are attractively laid out and have pull out drawers with extra information and objects. Instead of number labels there are hand held paddles with outlines of the objects as they are laid out in the cases that are then numbered for you to identify each object in the case. It allows you to choose what objects you want to learn about.
I’m not usually big on computer interactives, I’ve spent a good amount of time trying to fix them when they crash. However, there is one about looking after sheep and I swear it’s addictive; it needs to be made into an app. The aim is to isolate pregnant sheep from the flock, make sure they deliver successfully and get enough food and are rehoused together in a new field. There is also a round interactive table that allows multiple players to respond to questions about agriculture, oh and race each other to catch pigs – entertaining and informative, what more can you ask for from an interactive?
There was an excellent example of a documentation trail in the section of the exhibition that looks at the first acquisitions and set up of the museum. It not only has the object itself, but also the typed index cards.
My personal highlight was upstairs. Visible storage; museum storage and work spaces that are usually behind the scenes and hidden from the public, but instead here they are just behind perspex. This means that the objects are beautifully organised because even though they are not in an exhibition, they are still on display. This is not me saying that museum stores are by rule a mess because the public can’t see them. On the contrary, many stores just looks like lots of labelled boxes, so even if you visited one you’d not see much unless you were opening boxes. But here there is this wonderful transparency, a visitor can literally see a vast amount of the collection even if it is not being physically curated at the time.
A visit to The MERL is free, although donations are appreciated. It’s also worth checking out the other museums on the University Campus, the Cole Museum of Zoology and the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology. There is also Reading Museum in the area as well.