The Museum of English Rural Life is now open!

The MERL is now open after a £3million redevelopment project, which has radically transformed our public displays.

The new Museum challenges perceptions about rural England by revealing the historical and contemporary relevance of country life. Come and discover our new interactive, immersive galleries which explore questions of identity, environment, technology, culture and health.

  • The Museum is now fully open, following a major redevelopment, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
  • Free Admission
  • Redlands Road, Reading
    Get Directions

What's on

THE COMMONS: RE-ENCHANTING THE WORLD

Exhibitions

  • July 27, 2021 - January 30
  • Museum opening hours
  • Free

FIELDS

Exhibitions

  • October 1, 2021 - January 31
  • Museum opening hours
  • Free

Did you know

...city families used to pick hops on holiday?

Hop picking holidays allowed city families to earn money. Pickers were paid with tokens, which were used in local shops or exchanged for wages.

Did you know

...Elizabethan mattresses were used for both childbirth and corpses?

Mattresses, plaited from sedges, were made to support a mother during childbirth or a corpse after death. After use it would have been burned.

Did you know

...farmers used to sow seeds by fiddle?

Sowing by hand can be slow and inaccurate. Seed drills were developed in the 1800s to sow seeds quickly in a straight line at regular intervals.

Did you know

...Lady Eve Balfour (1898-1990) was one of the earliest organic farmers and co-founded the Soil Association?

Women continue to play a key role in this movement, with organic farms employing significantly more women than chemical farming.

Did you know

...Suttons Seeds invented the seed packet?

The local Reading firm, founded in 1806, popularised paper packets of seeds for gardeners.

Did you know

...villages often used to run their own fire services?

The National Fire Service was only created in 1941.

Is this a garden or a teeny tiny farm?

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, provides an update on our sugar beet growing project.

It’s National Gardening Week, and at The MERL we’re lucky enough to have a beautiful garden with a large lawn, herb garden, woodland area, and several community growing projects. It’s a great space for experimentation with different plant varieties and one of our current projects involves growing sugar beet – a vegetable that’s normally grown on farms rather than in gardens.

I must say that I felt very nervous waiting for our crop to germinate. The soil temperature and pH were right and we planted according to advice provided by British Sugar. But I was still worried that the seeds wouldn’t grow. I’m now pleased to say that our beets have germinated and are getting bigger and stronger by the day.

Photo of one of new sugar beet seedlings

But I still have concerns…

We applied fertiliser, as directed, and I worried that it might burn the new seedlings. We thinned the crop and I felt terrible for killing off perfectly good seedlings. Now, as the beets grow, I’m checking the bed with obsessive frequency – weeding and watering and fretting about the possibility that tender new leaves might be delicious to caterpillars and snails and vulnerable to any number of diseases. And what if the soil that I’ve painstakingly sifted using a hand-held riddle is still too stony to support a root crop like sugar beet?

Delving into the Sir Alfred Wood archive didn’t do anything to allay my fears – I’m now terrified that we’ll fail and end up with ‘fangy beets’:

Image of part of a vintage leaflet from 'Pictorial Hints on the Growing of Sugar Beet' (Presented by the Beet Sugar Factories of Great Britain'.
From Pictorial Hints on the Growing of Sugar Beet(Sir Alfred Wood Collection, Reference: D MS1087 36/2).

Is this how a farmer feels in springtime? Excited about the possibilities, but acutely aware that it could all be snatched away at a moment’s notice by an oversight or act of nature? In my case I guess it’s just run of the mill gardening angst. Both the gardener and the farmer must deal with uncertainty, but if our sugar beet crop fails, it will be a mere disappointment – it won’t affect my pay cheque. Yet scale our tiny Beet Box up to 100,000 beets per hectare and the stakes are so much higher on a real farm.

A novice like me can just ‘have a go’ at gardening and see what sprouts, but a beet farmer (or any farmer) must be an expert in her domain. Keeping up to speed on the latest research and advice and combining this with experience in the field (or knowledge handed down through generations) helps a farmer to manage risk and respond to set backs, increasing the chances of bringing a profitable crop to harvest.

I think I’ll stick to gardening for now and see how I feel about beet farming at the end of the season.

Landscape Education in the UK: past present and future

On Saturday 1 April 2017 MERL hosted a FOLAR (Friends of the Landscape Library and Archive at Reading) study day on the topic of: ‘Landscape Architecture and Management Education in the UK: past present and future’.  

The day included talks and a pop up display of archive and library material from our Landscape Institute collections.  FOLAR Chair, Penny Beckett, gives an account of the event:

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections

The best discussion we’ve had about UK landscape architecture education in a long while

So said one of those who attended the recent seminar at MERL organised by FOLAR.  Chaired by John Stuart-Murray (University of Edinburgh), this half day event had 4 speakers: Guy Baxter, the University Archivist, who spoke about the first English university course in Landscape Architecture set up at Reading in the 1930s; Jan Woudstra (University of Sheffield) on the development of English Landscape Architecture Education and after the tea break, former Reading senior lecturer Richard Bisgrove who spoke about the Landscape Management degree at Reading which ran from 1986 to 2009.

Our Archivist Guy Baxter speaking at #folar2017

The last speaker was Robert Holden (former University of Greenwich), who gave us much food for thought about the current state of landscape education in the UK. It appears to be in decline, while at the same time the demand for qualified landscape architects by employers outstrips the supply of home grown graduates. Much of the question and answer session after Robert’s talk explored why this might be the case when the situation seems very different in both the USA and other European countries. Earlier, Jan Woudstra had suggested possible reasons, citing the encroachment of ‘new’ course topics, such as ‘landscape urbanism’ into a subject area once occupied by landscape architecture alone. He mentioned too the lack of landscape research in the UK (though Sheffield boasts a healthy 45 PhD students!); the difficulty too of conveying a consistent image to the wider public, prospective students and their parents  about what the profession landscape architecture is all about. The irony is that the work of landscape professionals lies at the very heart of the current political agenda, while landscape architects and managers have long been used to the interdisciplinary working that is now essential in our 21st century world.

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections, 1930s journals

Guy Baxter’s talk made interesting links between the pre-war students at Reading and some of the members of the fledgling Institute of Landscape Architects (ILA) they helped to establish. The Institute’s archives deposited at MERL reveal the connections. The first ILA member, for example, ‘Member No. 1’ was Marjory Allen (Lady Allen of Hurtwood) the landscape architect who was an early advocate of the importance of providing for children’s play in our urban areas.

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections

Richard Bisgrove described the genesis of the BSc (Hons) in Landscape Management course he set up at Reading in 1986. It ran successfully for many years, training students who then went into various branches of the landscape profession. Lecturers on the course included Tony Kendle who later went to the Eden Project and Ross Cameron who moved to the University of Sheffield.

Selection of material from our Landscape Institute collections

One small downside of the day was that the full programme allowed little time to look at the wonderful display of archive material put out for us in MERL’s Reading Room. So to the MERL staff involved, can I offer both apologies as well as many thanks for helping to make such a thoroughly enjoyable and informative day. A video recording of the seminar itself will be posted on the FOLAR website shortly.

Penny Beckett, FOLAR Chair

You can find out more about our Landscape Institute collections, using our Reading Room, FOLAR or see tweets and Instagram posts from the event.  

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  • The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road

    Reading

    RG1 5EX

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