The Museum of English Rural Life reopens after £3.3m redevelopment project

Main Image: Gallery 7, Forces for Change, Dairying artefacts

The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading, the country’s first and most extensive museum dedicated to agriculture and rural life has reopened this week following a £3.3m redevelopment programme with £1.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF)

The Museum of English Rural Life was established in Reading in 1951 to capture and record the rapidly changing countryside following World War II. In 2005, it moved to its current premises in St Andrew’s Hall, a building designed by Sir Alfred Waterhouse in 1880 for local businessman Alfred Palmer of the Huntley & Palmer biscuit company.

Following extensive refurbishment the Museum reopens with 341 sq m of additional space including a gallery, social learning space developed in partnership with students from the University of Reading, open access collections area; enlarged education studio, shop and reception area; and new features in the garden including a shepherd’s hut and community growing spaces. The new spaces were designed by award-winning practice Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects with Studio GuM.

Gallery 4, Making Rural England, hunting pinques and greenwood craftspeople

The Museum has also radically transformed its public displays, with nine new galleries curated around the concept of Our Country Lives. The new galleries each explore a theme including Making Rural England, A Year on the Farm, Forces for Change and Wagon Walk and Digging Deeper. Interactive, immersive displays explore questions of identity, environment, technology, culture and health, and aim to challenge perceptions about rural England by revealing the historical and contemporary relevance of country life.

Director of the Museum of English Rural Life, Kate Arnold-Forster said: “The significant and much-needed redevelopment of the museum and its displays aims to create dynamic visitor experiences that help to change perceptions about the countryside and agriculture. We also hope to engage new generations with the rural past and present, and promote debate about the production of food and its future.”

Our Country Lives weaves stories, memories, archive film and photographs from rural lives through new displays which aim to revitalise the way visitors engage with the museum’s collections and show how this can deepen engagement with today’s countryside.  They will offer new perspectives on how agricultural tools and machinery, wagons, ploughs and traditional crafts such as woodturning, hurdle-making and thatching, baskets, strawcraft and leatherwork formed the essential fabric of rural lives. Visitors will be asked to contribute ideas on what should be collected today, inspired by agricultural events attended by the Museum in the 1950s.

Penny Richards of Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, “Our vision was to create opportunities to explore the collection through a series of interpretive ideas and themes. Each is contained within a newly created architectural space, providing a stimulating visual experience and showing the collection in an innovative and intriguing way.”

The Museum of English Rural Life is also relaunching with a new brand identity designed by Thomas Manss & Company who are also working in partnership with GuM Studio on the new graphics for the Museum. The Museum of English Rural Life is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), DCMS Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund, Wellcome Trust, The Headley Trust and The Earley Charity.

“HLF has been a long-term supporter of the Museum of English Rural Life, having previously funded its relocation into central Reading in 2005,” said Stuart McLeod, Head of HLF South East. “It contains an astonishing array of items which together tell an important part of the history of England. It’s great to see the difference National Lottery money has made to this museum – creating a wonderful space that will enthrall and educate visitors for many years to come.”

The Museum has worked alongside rural people, local communities and specialist researchers to create displays and activities that engage with important debates about the future of food and the ongoing relevance of the countryside to all our lives.  

A grand opening festival will take place tomorrow from 10am to 4pm.