Museum of English Rural Life to tackle ‘whiteness of countryside’

Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. Villages like this are too white and heteronormative according to curators
Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. Villages like this are too white and heteronormative, according to curators - SOUTHERN LIGHTSCAPES/MOMENT RF

The Museum of English Rural Life is set to tackle the “whiteness of the countryside” in a new project.

Curators at the museum, dedicated to the history of England’s countryside, have launched a £100,000 scheme to dispel the perception that rural Britain is a “white, heteronormative” place.

The project will seek to redress the assumed “whiteness of the countryside” and increase the representation of ethnic minorities and “LGBTQ+ rural people” in displays about life in the country.

The Museum of English Rural Life is managed by the University of Reading and receives Arts Council England funding to support its collection of pastoral artefacts, including ploughs, tractors and examples of Women’s Institute handicraft.

It comes after The Telegraph revealed a report submitted to an all-party parliamentary group (APPG) suggested the British countryside is a “racist colonial” white space, with green spaces governed by “white British cultural values”.

The scope of the new museum project, titled Further Afield, was announced by Tim Jerrome, the collection researcher who wrote on the museum’s website: “It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing the countryside as a white, heteronormative and able-bodied place.”

‘Ties people of colour to towns’

He added in a blog post explaining the new project: “The whiteness of the countryside is heavily tied to traditional romanticisation of farming and rurality, with assumptions that the same families of farmers have owned and worked the same land for decades or even centuries.”

The blog further claims that this perception “ties people of colour to towns”, along with LGBTQ people who are “pigeonholed as being ubiquitously urban in residence”.

The museum will work with “groups who have been historically underrepresented in the countryside” to “redress the balance” of representation, and create more diverse content and displays about rural Britain.

Mr Jerrome explained on the museum’s website: “Our ultimate aim is to give people from historically marginalised communities a platform to add their chapter to the story of English rural life, in whatever form that may take.”

The Further Afield project will be supported by a £99,000 grant from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and the Museums Associations, and will work with groups focused on increasing ethnic minority access to the countryside, and the LGBTQ+ staff network of the Forestry Commission.

The project will also address the lives of disabled people in rural areas, who face “significant barriers”.

£300k annual Arts Council funding

The Museum of English Rural Life was founded by experts from the Department of Agriculture in 1951, and in 2022 secured £304,499 in annual funding from the Arts Council to support its work telling the story of farming and country life.

The museum’s new focus on diversifying its collection comes after charity umbrella group Wildlife and Countryside Link, whose members include the RSPCA, WWF and the National Trust, claimed that the British countryside is a “racist colonial” white environment.

Wildlife and Countryside Link submitted the report to MPs on the APPG for Race and Community, which had called for evidence on the links between “systemic racism” and climate change.

The report further claimed that Britain’s green spaces are governed by “white British cultural values”, and that the perception that the countryside is a “white space” prevents ethnic minorities from enjoying the outdoors.

This report followed a 2023 announcement that “hate studies” experts at the University of Leicester were aiming to investigate “rural racism” in the British countryside

Academics specialising in British colonialism were commissioned to record the “lived realities” of ethnic minorities living in the country.

Ollie Douglas, curator of The Museum of English Rural Life Collections, said: “The Museum of English Rural Life has always sought to represent the wide social history of the countryside and the full range of people’s experience of it. The Further Afield project seeks to broaden and expand our use of collections and we are proud to stand against any type of discrimination.”

The University of Reading has been contacted for comment.

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