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Museum of English Rural Life: A review

November 14, 2016

The Museum of English Rural Life, or MERL, is one of those hidden attractions tucked away  on the edge of Reading town centre.  Following a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant the museum reopened in October 2016.

Despite some very discreet signposting (virtually none from railway station) MERL was receiving a steady stream of visitors on a Sunday lunchtime.  The museum is located in the University of Reading campus with an unobtrusive red bricked front.  The University collection contains a  significant number of agricultural vehicles, tools, costumes and archives telling the story of the countryside over the last couple of hundred years.  The museum has spent a lot of effort developing its main galleries, with new displays, audio visuals, touch screens and quality showcases.  The galleries attempt to tell the story of the people who lived on the countryside through print, audio testimonies and film clips,  as well as the technology used.  The museum brought in new technology prompting the visitor to interact and engage with issues relating to farming.

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The museum timeline right up to Brexit

A large part of the museum is effectively an open store, especially upstairs where the visitor can wander around the shelving stacks and see the “off display” collections (behind glass doors).  Imaginative use of audio, activated by sensors, provides an engaging atmosphere that is not too overbearing.  At the rear of the gallery is the Ladybird Collection, displayed as contemporary art, behind wall high showcases.  Which feels a bit odd, as I was an avid user of these books, and rarely showed much respect at the time when flicking through them.

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Using the walls as open storage, very effective.

 

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Ladybird Books as art, but behind glass

Although the museum had only been reopened for less than a month, some of the touch screen equipment was not fully operational.  The computer based games seemed overly complicated, and there were few low tech interactive alternatives.  Prior to redisplay the museum included a significant chunk of space looking at the future of the countryside including GM, self-sufficiency and climate change.  The new galleries place far less emphasis on these issues, or at least they are less prominent, which was disappointing.

Overall the museum is well worth a visit, whether you are interested in farming, the countryside or just want to know how your food appears on your plate.  There was enough to keep families with children occupied and the new cafe has plenty of space for kids to play with the generous number of rural themed toys while you can sip a hot beverage.

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