The difficult birth of a new museum

I think the idea of making a new museum excites people because it seems so achievable.

When you visit a museum it seems as though the objects were always meant to be there. The stories they tell is a tidy one, and the message is a polite but firm ‘This is what happened and this is true’. Putting objects together and writing a little label doesn’t seem hard, and you always find yourself standing in front of them and thinking ‘I could have done that better’.

Most museum displays sit there and state This Is History. (Photo: The British Museum, Ian Visits)

So when I came to Reading, fresh-faced in 2013 to see the Museum of English Rural Life as part of my interview, I thought I could do it better. So did the rest of the museum, which was the whole point of our £1.8m Heritage Lottery Fund project to revamp our galleries and how we work with our communities.

The museum was previously redone in 2004 in another HLF project, but the job always felt half-done. Everything was too brown and it talked about tractors too much. Labels were patchy, and much of the collection consisted of strange and hulking bits of machinery hiding behind exhibits.

The old museum had its plus points and its…minus points.

While many loved the old museum it was not living up to our mission of ‘fostering encounters and experiences that change perceptions about the future of the countryside.’ Our collection is remarkable, but much of it has been hidden away for too long. It is stuffed full of the strange quirks and idiosyncrasies of the English people — homemade tools for strange and forgotten purposes, the highs and lows of folk art, a thatched King Alfred, stunning modernist textiles, hollowed out tree trunks for chairs, and sheep contraceptives. Its variety, mundanity and peculiarities reflect the English countryside, its history and its people.

And the opportunity to explore English rural life is nothing short of incredible. Despite the vast majority of us living in towns, the countryside is of enduring relevance to us all. It is the thing which feeds us. It is the blight of the M4. It is GM crops. It is lambing season. It is fracking. It is second homes. It is AGA. It is Glastonbury Festival.

Depending on your view, the countryside is simultaneously the backward, twee, grim, beautiful, rich, poor heart of England.

Our collection has become more relevant as we reflect the current countryside, as when we collected Glastonbury Festival founder Michael Eavis’s wellies.

This rabbit hole is a joy to fall down. We could fill the British Museum twice over exploring the politics, history, environment, life and people of the English countryside.

Making museum displays, however, is a delicate dance between telling the stories we believe are important — i.e. those that enlighten, challenge and inform us — and trying not to bore our audiences but also satisfy their needs. Then there are the added complications of the limits of our collection and our building. What we had was a collection focused on 1750–1950 and a long, thin building attached to a Victorian house in the middle of Reading, with no external store for our objects.

Our Grade II*-listed building also contains our Library, Archives and the University’s Special Collections.

Because our museum is not the size of the British Museum and our collection is not infinite, we began with everything we believed was important to talk about, and gradually focused in on the stories which we could collectively agree upon. We then had to ensure our collections worked with these stories, and that we had an effective way of interpreting the information in the galleries. (Interpretation is the act of telling stories through different media, which includes objects, labels, videos, photographs, documents, art, tours, and almost anything that can convey a message or engage a person. I think.)

We couldn’t ignore the fact that we have 27 wagons and carts, for example, so instead of trying to crowbar them into all of our other stories we made a whole gallery just for them. While we were at it we used them to discuss milling, west country funerary traditions and market gardening.

And while we’d like to examine GM crops and the science of food nutrition in more detail, they have to play only a part in a gallery on technological change because we have a gigantic threshing machine, a tractor and a wagon which can’t go anywhere else except that gallery and are best suited to its exploration of technological change.

Museum displays do not develop in straight lines. Meanders, dead ends, eureka moments, wasted work and lots of coffee go into even the simplest of labels.

If you ever want to learn how a wagon is made try drawing 27 of the bloody things.

For this project we have really only employed one person on the museum side (myself) and two-ish people to work with our audiences on new community projects. The rest of the work was filled in by archivists, librarians, curators, conservators, administrative staff, Front of House, other project staff, PhD students, public programmers, a marketing manager, volunteers and academics taking time from their normal jobs to make an entirely new museum.

This process has taken around three years, and the relief at its conclusion is immense. I began at the MERL working four days a week, and since then I have had countless extensions to my contract, been contracted to other projects, done a bit of work for an exhibition design company and, most recently, split my week in half between the MERL and the Bodleian Libraries. I’ve learnt how to make GIFs, gone viral with a dead mouse and become one of a handful of wagon experts in the country.

We were helped by contracted architects, graphic designers and audience specialists, as well as help from the University in managing capital works, building regulations, health and safety and PR. The interpretation and design of the museum involved many of the above people sitting around a table debating — or arguing — at length, for hours, to make actions for people to research so we can meet again and debate — or argue — for hours, again, until we have a museum.

The truth is much of the gallery is never fully agreed upon until it exists physically. Labels can be changed at the last minute when we notice an error. We discover amazing objects at the last minute which have to go in.

Measurements of large objects, such as fire engines, turn out to be wrong and plinths have to be remade on site. A contractor can make a case too small, meaning all the objects and the message they convey have to change.

Plans for the new museum underwent constant revision over three years

In short, making an entirely new museum is difficult. It has taken the energies of many people, all of whom have put in more hours than is sane. When you come to our new museum you will not see the blood, sweat and tears of three years that have gone into it. You will see objects tidily laid out, you will see interactive screens and you will see labels. And I will stand in front of them and think ‘We could not have done this better’.

(well, maybe a few things)

The MERL reopens on 19 October. See our Facebook & Twitter.