Going Green

Going Green: Sustainability past, present and future

  • 10 July to 28 October 2007

Archive photograph of a snowdriftThis was MERL's main exhibition of 2007. It used the fascinating object and archive collections to put contemporary issues such as climate change, renewable energy, recycling, biodiversity and self-sufficiency in their historical context.

What made MERL's new exhibition unique was its attempt to present parts of the Museum's historical collection within the context of today's environmental debate. Rarely seen objects were on display for visitors to enjoy, including a selection of 19th century animal portraits, which illustrate how plants, animals and landscape have all been subject to human intervention.

Will Phillips and Roy Brigden, Keeper of the Museum, chose objects and photos from MERL's archives to illustrate the history of debate about the clash between human activity and the natural world. Some of the fascinating objects on show included a pair of ice-skates from the 1950s that were used in the Fens during the harsh winters, a 19th century ankle boot with the best bit of leather removed for reuse and a rush light, which used animal fat as an alternative source of fuel.

The subjects covered by MERL's collections - food, farming and the countryside - are ones which have been greatly affected by issues of climate change. Museums themselves are becoming more directly involved with these issues. From April 2008 all museums will have to display their energy ratings.

Archive photograph of children sitting on a wallThe exhibition was designed to make us think about how past lifestyles and attitudes, illustrated so well by many of the objects in MERL's collections, could provide some possible answers to questions of transport, renewable energy and recycling. Decorative panels from working canal boats remind us that the country's waterways were once used for transport rather than leisure. A photograph of a watermill shows us that it wasn't until industrialisation that we became so dependent on fossil fuels.

Whilst the objects and images from MERL's collections provided an insight into how these issues were considered in the past, to illustrate their link with the present, Will Phillips made a series of recordings of interviews with leading experts, such as Professor Jonathan Gregory from the University of Reading's Meteorology Department, Rob White of the Reading Green Party and Iain Tolhurst, a local organic farmer.

These recordings are oral histories which are now held in the MERL archives as first-hand accounts of issues concerning farming and the countryside today. Extracts were included in the exhibition, and the public can now access the full interviews in the Reading Room at MERL.

Visitors were also able to view a number of short films which provided more information about current issues. The films included 'Climate Challenge' from DEFRA, an animation to promote organic farming to children made by the Soil Association, a Greenpeace film, 'What are we waiting for?' about decentralised energy and a humorous take on rising water levels made by the Rural Media Company.

The opening of the exhibition was be marked with a panel debate on July 11th in which leading experts in this field, including Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture Magazine, Philip Koomen, designer of sustainable furniture and Paul Starkey, expert on sustainable issues in the developing world, David Sutton, Leader of Reading Borough Council and Brenda Boardman of the University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute, gave short talk and answered questions from the floor.

Further events in the programme included a talk on Sustainable Living by Ben Law, woodsman and author of 'The Woodland House', the Summer Spectacular, a family fun day on the theme of Sustainability on August 4th, and a lecture in the Great Hall at the University of Reading, given by Jonathon Porritt.

 

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