RMN’23 – Contemporary collecting of tractors and agricultural equipment

Image credit: The Museum of English Rural Life/University of Reading

The Rural Museums Network’s Autumn Rural Voices seminar series concluded with the opportunity to hear from four leaders in their field as we critically examined the issues of contemporary and near-collecting tractors and agri-tech more broadly. Together with Stuart Gibbard, Felicity McWilliams, Ben Russell and David Rose we discussed collections development as it pertains to new and evolving farm technologies, the current gaps in museum holdings in these areas, and explore past challenges and future opportunities.

This session was hosted by Ollie Douglas , Curator at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Felicity McWilliams is a curatorial museums professional with a specialist interest in the history of technology. She recently completed a PhD at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHoSTM) at King’s College London on the use of draught power technologies in British farming c.1920-1970. As a recipient of an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, she was based primarily at the Museum of English Rural Life, where she worked prior to starting her PhD on the redevelopment of the Museum’s permanent galleries.

As well as the history of technology, whilst at King’s she also became interested in the growing field of animal history, and is a co-founder of the Animal History Group, the London-based research network with the goal of inspiring, creating and developing new knowledge about animals within history. Felicity is currently widening the scope of her research from agricultural to urban technological and industrial history as the Research Assistant for Science & Industry at Birmingham Museums Trust.

David Rose is Professor of Sustainable Agricultural Systems at Cranfield University. As a Rural Geographer he leads the Change in Agriculture Group, which is split between Cranfield and Reading.

The group works on aspects of farm extension – engaging, listening, and responding to farmer and other stakeholder views about changes in policy, innovation, or technology. They are interested in how changes in agriculture affect people, production, and the planet with a particular focus on mental health, farmer learning, governance, just transitions, animal welfare, behaviour change, and responsible innovation.

The following links may be of interest:

Ben Russell is Curator of Mechanical Engineering at the Science Museum. He has curated five major permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions at the museum, including Robots (2017) and James Watt’s Workshop (2011), as well as Cosmonauts (2015).

Watt’s Workshop led on to his book, James Watt: Making the World Anew, (Reaktion Books, 2014). Most recently, Ben edited Robots (Scala, 2017).

Ben was unfortunately unable to present in person, and so his notes were shared by Dr Oliver Douglas who was also able to offer his own comments and experience. Oliver shared a number of links during the discussions, which are also included here:

Stuart Gibbard is one of the leading specialist journalists in his field, and contributes regularly to several leading magazines. He was founding editor of Old Tractor magazine and more recently was editor of Vintage Tractor & Countryside Heritage.

Stuart currently edits the David Brown Tractor News. His many award-winning books and DVDs include seminal works on Ford, Ferguson and David Brown. During the course of his research, he has met and talked with many of the world’s leading tractor designers and engineers, and has amassed a substantial reference library and photo archive. Stuart also runs the website Gibbard Tractors.

Dr Oliver Douglas has worked at The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, for over a decade where his role focusses on curation, interpretation, management, research access, and public engagement.

During this time, Ollie has both led and participated in numerous projects that have sought to reimagine rural heritage and museums in a range of creative ways. He sits on the Committee of the RMN and The Folklore Society and has previously served as President of the ICOM-affiliated International Association of Agricultural Museums.

The presentations sparked an extended discussion, and it was great to hear from so many participants who shared their own thoughts and experiences including a project exploring the farming collections with the Museum of Cornish Life in Helston and David Matless’ article on the history of the Science Museum’s agriculture galleries.

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