MERL was established in 1951 and grew out of the University's long tradition of academic excellence in agriculture. It pioneered a new field of museum activity and rapidly accumulated material relating to the great social and technological changes taking place in the countryside at the time, represented above all by the switch from horse power to the tractor.
Over the years, the collections have grown to encompass specialist holdings of books, archives, photographs and film so that the Museum operates as a national centre for the history of food, farming and the countryside.
The Museum flourishes as both a public facility with an active programme of activities and events, and a university body with a role in teaching and research.
Find out more about MERL's first 50 years by viewing the online exhibition, created to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2001.
Celebrating 60 years in 2011
MERL shares its 60th anniversary with the iconic radio serial 'The Archers'. Learn why this is no coincidence, and find out how the Museum is celebrating this important milestone with an exciting new exhibition in partnership with the BBC...
2011 marks sixty years since the foundation of the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL). Over these decades MERL has aimed to record the changing countryside and to capture the ebb and flow of rural experience. Although its collections seek to represent the national face of farming and food production, the Museum has always maintained strong local connections. The pioneering agricultural department of its parent institution—the University of Reading—has strong links with the surrounding countryside. Over the years such connections have helped MERL find its place as the logical repository for materials relating to the history of rural England and its people. From shepherds to craftspeople, tradesmen to agricultural engineers, field labourers to farmers’ wives, MERL harbours archives, artefacts, and photographs to bring all their stories to life.
After the Second World War the English countryside underwent a period of immense and widespread change. This was a time of great social and technological transition, with the shift from horsepower to mechanisation, the decline of the threshing machine, and rise of the combine harvester. Along with other modern innovations, these developments marked a wholesale and irreversible shift in the agricultural world. Old equipment was being discarded, seen as fit only for the scrap heap or the bonfire. In Reading, one university lecturer recognised the need to collect and preserve this vanishing heritage. With the support of colleagues he submitted a proposal for the University to create a Museum of English Rural Life. His idea was accepted and the Museum is now able to look back on 60 years charting the diverse and dynamic story of English country life: collecting, sorting, and displaying this narrative to the people of Berkshire and beyond.
MERL was founded to look to the past, exploring bucolic ways of life that were dying out. Other media, meanwhile, were looking to the future of the countryside, finding ways to promote new methods to the farming world. In Birmingham, a BBC producer had been considering how to provide farmers with information on the latest agricultural developments in an accessible and entertaining way. In late 1950 the BBC piloted five episodes on the Midland Home Service of a radio serial about a farming family called The Archers. The first nationally- broadcast episode of this much-loved soap aired the following year. The confluence of the foundation of these two influential and enduring institutions—MERL and The Archers—was no mistake. As such, their timely and respective establishments form the centrepiece of an exhibition, 'Everyday stories of country folk' and programme of events to celebrate all that the Museum has achieved between 1951 and the present day.
Alongside significant items and archival materials related to the history of The Archers, the exhibition will tell the story of MERL from its early days through to present, touching on its connections to local communities and showing images and artefacts drawn from the South East and beyond.
A new home
In 2005, MERL moved to new premises.
The redevelopment was funded by a £10.76m capital campaign, which was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the University, several major Trusts and Foundations and members of the public.
The new museum is now located in the heart of Reading and housed in a grade II listed building, formerly a University hall of residence. Originally designed by Alfred Waterhouse as the home of Sir Alfred Palmer (Huntley & Palmers biscuits, Reading) an adjoining new building, designed by Niall Phillips Associate, has been added. The two contrasting buildings overlook imaginatively restored gardens and create a perfect setting for a rural collection in an urban environment.
This online exhibition about St Andrew's Hall provides more information about the history of the building.
The building has also inspired one of our most popular sessions for schools. Visit the Learn at MERL pages to find out more about the Palmer House session, in which children become history detectives, discovering clues about Victorian life.