The great majority of English rural life museums were founded in the 1960s as a response to rapid mechanisation of agriculture. They reflected a profound sense of loss exacerbated by the disappearance of the old ways of working and living which was intrinsically linked to the land. This longing was illustrated by a rural literary tradition of invoked by observers like George Ewart Evans and Ronald Blythe. The latter’s Akenfield remains a tender evocation of passing of traditional rural communities.
Rural museum collections (and the Museum of East Anglian Life is no exception) amplify this passing. Their holdings of wagons, chaff cutters, tools and work-wear point overwhelmingly to a landscape shaped by manual toil.
Urban sprawl, greater car usage, rising house prices and globalisation of food production has had a deep effect of the anatomy of villages, in a way dissimilar to neighbourhoods in towns and cities. In small rural communities this effect is amplified. Hardly anyone lives and works in the same place, less than 1% of the rural workforce is employed in agriculture even in East Anglia. Second home ownership means that local young families are priced out of the market, new housing developments are often contested. New planning rules purport to encourage both local decision making and a presumption in favour sustainable development (who would promote unsustainable development!). Rising fuel costs and lower net wages means that whilst a city professional might enjoy and weekend in the country, a few cultural activities and city break might be more elusive for the rural working family.
Studies in human geography further highlight difference between rural and urban communities. Danny Dorling’s work shows that as people age they make a flight for the country (eventually ending up by the sea). There are more divorcees in the countryside building new family units. An older and less mobile population (physically and socially) means that political and cultural life is more conservative. Yet many indices point to better health outcomes as a result of greater levels of social capital and access to green space.
These differences both real and perceived are manifest in cultural misunderstandings between town and country. Raymond Williams The Country and the City highlighted how both were represented differently in English literary tradition. Barbara Ellen writing in the Observer invoking the hoary issue of hunting, felt many rural folk considered themselves beyond the law and had an entitlement to kill. Anyone reading Roger Scruton would think that rural England is the habitat of the somnambulist, oblivious of the erosion of its virtues by relentless urbanisation.
Beyond the lazy typecasts lies a much more progressive social order. At annual village fetes and flower shows, alongside the cake stands, you might find the stall of a Transition group committed to sustainable future for their communities. Deprivation and isolation are very real, but so are the plethora of voluntary groups and self-actualising support networks of local people helping the vulnerable. Volunteering is disproportionately high in rural areas, ‘spill’ is also common as people are often involved with more than one group.
In the 1950s George Ewart Evans wrote
The Miller and the Millwright, the harness-maker and the tailor show how the old village community was dovetailed together by the nature of the work.
Today the most visceral tie which binds rural communities is perhaps just the notion of ‘living in the country’.
So how can museums begin to portray a more accurate account of rural life today? At present most of the ‘stuff’ in rural museums fails to reflect contemporary life in the countryside. Rhianedd Smith, writing in Curator Journal examined the relavence of UK rural collections to contemporary issues and highlighted only a few examples. Among them is Melton Carnegie Museum in Leicestershire which discusses the debates around hunting. The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading through its Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures programme amassed ‘material representing the twentieth century reflecting the political and cultural importance of the countryside.’
For its part Museum of East Anglian Life is seeking a Museum Activist to research and identify contemporary trends within the region’s rural localities. They will then work with 5 or 6 communities collect material to articulate their concerns. In turn this will set the tone for the museums future collecting and public programming.
Rural Museums are popular, precisely because they offer a vision of the past so divorced from the experience of most of their visitors. But museums should be relevant and be courageous enough to discuss complex issues which shape the current countryside. In doing so they’ll enable visitors and their communities to take notice and think differently about the world around them