Whose Rural?

Musing on the MERL. 

We recently we had our first project day trip outing to the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), in Reading. On the museum’s website it explains that it “was established to record the disappearance of a sustainable rural way of life in order to understand and learn from the past as its mission”.

A pair of wooden clogs, photographs of farm life, a variety of costume hats to try on, and interactive games to teach you about farming and crop rotation: the MERL provided an excellent day of learning and entertainment. If anything, we learnt that we would be terrible sheep farmers as whilst playing one of the games we managed to kill nine animated sheep, and four lambs… 

Our final score from an interactive game at the MERL.

Apart from our embarrassing work as sheep farmers, two things stood out for me from me looking at objects around the museum: size and colour. Being able to stand next to objects such as wagons and farm machinery was really useful in thinking about the amount of space that certain objects occupy. Some wagons had wheels which were taller than myself – being able to see the scale of the objects brought home the hard labour and physical challenge of rural life. 

After we looked around the museum, Will led us in a creative writing exercise. We each picked out an object in the museum that we’d photographed, and had to write a short creative piece explaining, or revealing how the three objects were connected. The objects picked were: a pair of clogs, a wagon board, and a bottle of cow medicine. It was during this exercise that I thought about the colours of the past. It became apparent that rural life is very brown. Brown wood, brown glass, brown mud, brown smocks, brown clogs, brown cows. For many of the people we are researching, brown would have been the colour that saturated their existence.

Brown clogs – on display at the Museum of English Rural Life.

So – I had identified the large scale of machinery, I had identified the predominance of the colour brown. Now I had to ask myself what was not there in the museum? What had I assumed would be there, yet was absent?  

One thing that I felt was missing was actually the countryside itself. By this I mean the natural materiality of the rural: grass, trees, stone, and flowers. Most of the objects in the museum were manmade – machinery and farming equipment. This fits with the MERL’s mission to “to explore how the skills and experiences of farmers and craftspeople, past and present, can help shape our lives now and into the future”.

When I think of the word ‘rural’, I don’t think of medicine for cows, or wagons, or milk urns. I don’t even think of the colour brown. I think of grass, I think of trees, I think of green. (Though I must say the MERL totally delivered on material relating to cows – see my previous post which explains our project’s cow obsession.)

The objects we saw in the museum were ‘of’ the countryside, they were used in the countryside, they represented the challenges of the countryside, they revealed how humans capitalise the countryside, but they were not the countryside itself. 

As someone who grew up in a rural area I thought about when I had actually come into contact with farmers and crafts as a child. I had a friend – Rozzy – who lived on a farm so the few times I went over to her house I came into contact with machinery, farm life and animals. I was also shouted at by a farmer for playing in (destroying) his hay barn, but apart from that my experience of rural life was very different: walking to the village school past the blacksmith’s house; making Mothers’ Day posies for the village church; attending Sunday School; watching the amateur dramatics group perform at the village hall; decorating a wooden spoon for entry into the village show, and sledging down fields when the snow came. Yes, I had an incredibly parochial childhood… Generally, local farmers kept themselves quite separate from my village life. I actually had no idea who they were. Looking around the MERL was discombobulating – my rural childhood experience felt so separate from it. Whose rural, I guess, is the question? 

The other thing that Anna noticed was that there seemed to be little to do with folklore or religion. I didn’t really spot anything related to the tradition of the ‘May Queen’, church-going, morris dancing, dowsing, or other ritual practices that I relate to the countryside. We found what appeared to be some corn dolls on the upper level, but there was not much in the way of anything remotely ‘witchy’. The only witches we found were on the covers of the books in the separate ‘Ladybird Books’ exhibition, upstairs in the museum.

I suppose, really, my question is how far are the farm and folklore separate? Where is the point of connection between them – if any? In some of the research that we have been doing, farm life and witchcraft are certainly linked. But that is in France – perhaps this just was not the case in England. Anyway, it did unsettle me that my experience of the countryside was not really present in the museum. Perhaps I had ‘done’ growing up in the countryside wrong…? Perhaps I actually had no real understanding of what the ‘rural’ meant at all. I knew this said more about me, than about the MERL, which is a brilliant museum. I’m sure my friend Rozzy would have felt that the MERL very much depicted the rural way of life that she knew. 

I know that my feelings lead me once again to the idea of perspective that we have been discussing: when we say ‘rural’, whose rural do we mean? How might ‘rural’ be understood differently from one person to the next? How is your ‘rural’ different from mine? I’ll show you my ‘rural’, if you show me yours, etc…

What does this all mean for our creative writing then? Or mine, at least? The same thing I have been constantly learning each week, I suppose: challenge assumptions, consider perspectives, and that I’d be a useless farmer. 

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