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The MERL announces '51 Voices' creative project to celebrate 70 years

MERL wall hanging panel

Cartoon design for Yorkshire panel of the ‘The Diversity of British Farming’ series of wall-hangings, as created by Michael O'Connell for the 1951 Festival of Britain.

To mark its 70th year, The Museum of English Rural Life, (The MERL) is launching an exciting collaborative project celebrating its collections.

The '51 Voices' project will welcome people with lots of different experience, interests, and expertise in exploring and responding to collections - from textiles and texts to straw crafts and souvenirs-connected with 1951, the year the Museum was established by the University of Reading.

Artists, community groups, specialists, makers, museum volunteers and members of the public will help connect these items to priorities and passions of the past, present and future.

Throughout 2021, 51 Voices will be linked with 51 items in the collection, enabling reflection on mid-century ideas, preoccupations, and creativity but with contemporary perspectives. By working with different ‘Voices', including many from outside the museum sector, these items will be re-imagined with surprising, and perhaps challenging responses.

The objects and voices will be revealed online regularly during the year, including through blogs and an online exhibition.

Events and activities to celebrate are planned, including to tie in with the Festival of Britain anniversary in the Summer. The MERL holds the inspiring Michael O'Connell wall hangings that depict the versatility and variety of UK farming, and together made a giant, 46-metre-long curtain that stretched the length of the Country section of the Festival.

The 51 objects will include many others linked to the Festival, that reflect its rich, creative legacy of craft, design, and mid-century artistry.

You can find out more on this dedicated exhibition page.

Dr Ollie Douglas, Curator of MERL Collections, said: "Each object, book, artwork or archival item that has been chosen has a strong link to 1951 but also resonates powerfully with 2021. By looking more closely at these amazing and diverse things we want to share and develop our understanding of the links between the countryside seven decades ago and life today with the public.

"These collections, including iconic material from the Festival of Britain, already mark a previous moment of renewal. 70 years on, and in these unprecedented times, this is the perfect moment to look at them again to explore reconstruction and regeneration. They are a springboard to thinking about our future as much as our past." 

After the uncertainty and financial challenges posed by the pandemic, which threatened the future of this project, it is going ahead thanks to a grant awarded by Arts Council England to The MERL as part of the Government's £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) last Autumn.

The grant will enable several aspects of the project, including funding for 10 local artists to carry out projects, and work with volunteers and community groups. This will include poetry, illustration and sculptural artworks inspired by one of the 51 objects and creatively giving voice to themes as diverse as birth, home, natural heritage and climate change.

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