Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 November 2020
ONE OF THE rare negative TripAdvisor reviews for the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) complained that it contained just a “bunch of old tools,” which should be thrown in a skip. The author of the review argued that they had expected the Museum to be full of beautiful pieces of furniture and was disappointed by this less glamorous depiction of rural life. The need to balance an audience appetite for rural aesthetics with the complex multifaceted stories of the English countryside is something which shaped debate during the Museum's recent redisplay. As part of this redisplay, the MERL glazed its storage area to make it accessible to the public as part of the overall museum experience. Visitor feedback has been positive, but many have requested further information about stored objects that are now unfamiliar to most of the population. As a university museum, we also find that our students have trouble engaging with our more workaday items and gravitate towards decorative and domestic objects. Increasingly, we find that our visitors and future curators lack a first-hand understanding of the MERL's objects and issues. The obvious approach might be to turn our back on specialists, but it is argued here that engagement with people who “love” these collections might help us to engage wider audiences.
This chapter explores enthusiasm and expertise for hand tools and questions the place of the Museum of English Rural Life's collection of hand tools in that wider context. The issue of enthusiasm for historic hand tools in the UK is examined through site visits to the Tools and Trades History Society's (TATHS) Museum at Amberley and the Tools for Self Reliance workshop in the New Forest. This investigation of contemporary expertise and enthusiasm is brought together with the research already being undertaken regarding the history and future of the MERL. The chapter ends with an account of an intervention staged at the MERL to explore how expertise and enthusiasm might be transferred between generations. Research into enthusiasm notes the importance of studying networks (which might be in some ways virtual) and real-world spaces in which these individuals come together to share their enthusiasm.