Fury as historic farming museum is stripped of 'cherished' rural focus

EXCLUSIVE: Fury as historic rural museum about ‘Britain’s Breadbasket’ of East Anglia is stripped of its ‘cherished’ regional heritage and given eco-friendly focus on ‘sustainability’ and food production

  • The Museum of East Anglian Life has been rebranded as the Food Museum
  • The move has sparked outcry for ‘obliterating’ East Anglian culture and history
  • Campaigners were told the old name was a ‘difficult concept’ and ‘irrelevant’
  • Museum said it wants to ‘reflect population, issues and needs of 21st Century’
  • A rural museum that was renamed after its former title was deemed ‘confusing’ is facing criticism over its approach to local identity.

    Last month, the Museum of East Anglian Life rebranded as the Food Museum, prompting outcry from more than 1,700 people who have signed a petition to ‘save’ the museum from its shift towards sustainability and food production.

    Matthew Attwood, 41, a Suffolk writer and collector, started the petition and believes the museum is a ‘cherished part of local culture’ that details shared rural heritage.

    He said that ‘everyone but the museum’ is against the change, with the issue finding a place in the letters page of the local newspaper, and being given airtime on BBC Radio Suffolk.

    Mr Attwood is spearheading a call for transparency over the name change, and said that in a recent meeting with the museum’s director, Jenny Cousins, he was told that East Anglia is a ‘difficult concept’ and ‘irrelevant’.

    ‘I don’t agree the term East Anglia is confusing,’ Mr Attwood said. ‘Can you imagine being told that?’

    Last month, the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) rebranded as the Food Museum, prompting outcry from almost 1,700 people who have signed a petition to 'save' the museum from its shift towards food and agriculture

    Last month, the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) rebranded as the Food Museum, prompting outcry from almost 1,700 people who have signed a petition to ‘save’ the museum from its shift towards food and agriculture

    The heritage museum was renamed after its former title was deemed 'confusing' and is now facing criticism over its approach to local identity. Pictured, Abbot's Hall, one of the many buildings on site

    The heritage museum was renamed after its former title was deemed ‘confusing’ and is now facing criticism over its approach to local identity. Pictured, Abbot’s Hall, one of the many buildings on site

    The website of the Food Museum. The museum says on its site: 'Changing our name was a first step rather than a final destination.'

    The website of the Food Museum. The museum says on its site: ‘Changing our name was a first step rather than a final destination.’

    He said that other museums across the country which take their namesake from their location, such as The Museum of Cornish Life, have no issue with the public perception of their collections.

    Before the pandemic, the museum was attracting around 39,000 visitors each year.

    ‘It’s impossible to imagine the people of Cornwall accepting that the Museum of Cornish Life is somehow confusing or lacking relevance, or something similar happening at the Yorkshire Museum or the Museum of Lancashire,’ he said. 

    ‘But East Anglians feel a similar sense of pride in their region, its unique history and beautiful landscapes. 

    ‘What’s got people so upset is that the people who are meant to be at the forefront of preserving our heritage seem at best ignorant of it and at worst hostile to it.’

    Left, Matthew Attwood, 41, a Suffolk writer and collector, started the petition and believes the museum is a 'cherished part of local culture' detailing shared rural heritage

    Suffolk historian, author and voice coach, Charlie Haylock, called the rename a 'disastrous step backwards'

    Left, Matthew Attwood, 41, a Suffolk writer and collector, started the petition and believes the museum is a ‘cherished part of local culture’ detailing shared rural heritage. Right, Suffolk historian, author and voice coach, Charlie Haylock, called the rename a ‘disastrous step backwards’

    Mr Attwood said that during the meeting, he asked Ms Cousins to define East Anglia.

    ‘She couldn’t,’ he said. ‘She told me “people will define it in different ways; it’s up to them.”

    ‘This is plainly nonsense: the classic definition is Suffolk and Norfolk, roughly in line with the Saxon kingdom of East Anglia; modern definitions take in Cambridgeshire and Essex, which was the founding definition in the museum’s own governing document. 

    ‘It really couldn’t be clearer and if the people in charge of a museum dedicated to the region can’t easily give that definition you have to wonder if they’re in the right job.’

    The museum’s website states that it’s new focus is ‘to connect people with where our food comes from and the impact of our choices’ adding that its collection is ‘rooted in East Anglia and we use it to tell broad and inclusive stories’. 

    Food Museum director Jenny Cousins outside Abbot's Hall, one of the many historic buildings on the museum's site in Stowmarket

    Food Museum director Jenny Cousins outside Abbot’s Hall, one of the many historic buildings on the museum’s site in Stowmarket

    Matthew Attwood, 41, a Suffolk writer and collector, started the petition and believes the museum is a 'cherished part of local culture' detailing shared rural heritage. Pictured, a blacksmiths that dates back to 1750. The Grundisburgh building was relocated piece by piece to the museum in the 1970s

    Matthew Attwood, 41, a Suffolk writer and collector, started the petition and believes the museum is a ‘cherished part of local culture’ detailing shared rural heritage. Pictured, a blacksmiths that dates back to 1750. The Grundisburgh building was relocated piece by piece to the museum in the 1970s

    Ms Cousins previously told the East Anglian Daily Times that the change was about telling stories people could relate to.

    ‘It’s all about relevance. The museum was founded when people could remember going around on horse-drawn carriages,’ she told the paper.

    ‘I think it’s important that we represent what people remember today.’ 

    In a statement, a museum spokesperson said earlier this year: ‘The change is motivated by a commitment to interpret our collection in a way which is relevant to modern audiences.

    ‘We think that it is important that we reflect the population, issues and needs of 21st century Britain. Museums shouldn’t be preserved in aspic.’

    One of its newest projects titled ‘Rivers for All’ focuses on sustainability and includes artwork from eight environmental artists — with one sculpture made from drink cans thrown into the museum’s bins. 

    Its ‘Every Garden Matters’ exhibition aims to ‘challenge and empower visitors’ over sustainability in their gardens, and ‘confronts the idea that we are powerless in the face of the climate emergency’. 

    It also hosted an ‘insect day’ focused on bees on May 14. 

    The 75-acre site sits in Stowmarket, Suffolk, and surrounds manor house Abbot's Hall. It has 17 historic buildings on site

    The 75-acre site sits in Stowmarket, Suffolk, and surrounds manor house Abbot’s Hall. It has 17 historic buildings on site

    Signing Mr Attwood’s petition, Laurence Arthurs from Manningtree said the name change ‘would obliterate its identity as a hub of East Anglian culture’. 

    Other signatories on the petition shared similar views. 

    Maureen Grenfell from Ipswich, said: ‘The Museum of East Anglian Life should remain exactly as it is. It is our rural heritage and history that is unique to us and should stay that way.’

    Samantha Main, also from Ipswich, said: ‘When I go to a museum I like to be able to engage and feel the history of the people and what their lives were like. 

    ‘You get that in abundance at the Museum of East Anglian Life. It’s sort of in the name. You can’t get that deeper connection from food. Museum of Food sounds dull and hollow.’ 

    But staff at the museum said the change would ‘bring more people in’.

    Mr Attwood said a major selling point of East Anglia is its history, buildings and countryside.

    ‘We’ve also been told that visitors find it confusing, but with more than eight million tourist visits to East Anglia in 2019, the last pre-pandemic year, clearly people find the region attractive.’

    Much of the museum's collection has been donated by the community since it opened in 1967

    Much of the museum’s collection has been donated by the community since it opened in 1967

    Mr Attwood believes that swathes of the collection do not fit with the rebranding to the Food Museum, and is concerned about the future of some items

    Mr Attwood believes that swathes of the collection do not fit with the rebranding to the Food Museum, and is concerned about the future of some items

    Food Museum director, Jenny Cousins, said that local heritage remains a priority for the centre, but Mr Attwood said no clarity has been given about the future of collections

    Food Museum director, Jenny Cousins, said that local heritage remains a priority for the centre, but Mr Attwood said no clarity has been given about the future of collections

    The rename has also been criticised by Suffolk historian, author and voice coach, Charlie Haylock. He called it a 'disastrous step backwards'

    The rename has also been criticised by Suffolk historian, author and voice coach, Charlie Haylock. He called it a ‘disastrous step backwards’

    Suffolk historian, author and voice coach, Charlie Haylock, called the rename a ‘disastrous step backwards’. 

    ‘MEAL is an iconic museum in East Anglia and in my opinion and that of many others should remain so,’ Mr Haylock said.

    ‘Many of the exhibits relate to the production of food through the ages, so why not have a specific section on food production within the framework of the “Museum of East Anglian Life” and keep the name as it is? 

    ‘It has taken many years to build the wonderful reputation that MEAL has today and it would be disastrous to change its name, its place in the community, its function and its working practices. In fact it would be nigh on criminal.’ 

    Mr Attwood is concerned about what will happen to the museum’s extensive collection, which has been bolstered by donations from the community since it was founded in 1967 by farmer Jack Carter.

    ‘It’s a lovely, beautiful, unique collection — and the only museum set up to look at East Anglian life,’ Mr Attwood said.

    ‘What does this mean for future acquisitions and the existing collection? It was seen as a place where people could give their valued items. What does this mean for local history?’

    Donations given to the museum sit on top of each others in some of the storage buildings. Mr Attwood said he is concerned about how well some of the collection is being maintained

    Donations given to the museum sit on top of each others in some of the storage buildings. Mr Attwood said he is concerned about how well some of the collection is being maintained

    The museum has lots of agricultural machinery, tracking changes to farming in the region. The charity has a remit to reflect' all the varied aspects of East Anglian life'

    The museum has lots of agricultural machinery, tracking changes to farming in the region. The charity has a remit to reflect’ all the varied aspects of East Anglian life’

    Mr Attwood said that he spoke to one man who recorded a collection of folk songs in the 1950s and 1960s and was hoping they would find a home at the museum. 

    The 75-acre site sits in Stowmarket, Suffolk, and surrounds manor house Abbot’s Hall. 

    It has 17 historic buildings, including a blacksmith’s forge built in 1750 in Grundisburgh and relocated to the museum in the 1970s, and a working windmill. There are more than 40,000 objects in its collection.

    At the start of this year, Director Ms Cousins told the Museums Association that as part of the rename, the museum will reorganise its collections and change its collection strategy. 

    One of the charity’s core aims is to ‘advance the education of the public in the area of East Anglia including the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk by the provision of a museum reflecting all the varied aspects of East Anglian life’.

    Mr Attwood said changing its name to the ‘Food Museum’ contradicts its charitable objectives. 

    ‘Connecting people to where food comes from is fine, but that’s not what it was set up to do,’ he added.

    The Food Museum has described East Anglia as 'Britain's Breadbasket' but Mr Attwood feels that this does not encompass the entire local culture

    The Food Museum has described East Anglia as ‘Britain’s Breadbasket’ but Mr Attwood feels that this does not encompass the entire local culture

    East Anglia has been described as ‘Britain’s Breadbasket’ by the Food Museum, but Mr Attwood feels that this does not encompass the entire local culture, with many of the items in the collection being unrelated to food or its production, he said. 

    Ms Cousins told the East Anglian Daily Times that ‘everyone can relate to food in some way’.

    ‘We want to honour the journey that the museum has already made and the contributions of generations of volunteers, staff and supporters,’ she told the paper. 

    ‘Local heritage remains a priority – our travelling exhibition “Food Stories” is visiting 20 villages in Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex this year to collect local dialect, memories and recipes, starting at the end of this month.’

    Signing the petition, Laurence Arthurs from Manningtree said the name change ‘would obliterate its identity as a hub of East Anglian culture’

    Facts about East Anglia 

    The Kingdom of the East Angles was established in the 570s, as the Anglo-Saxon tribes started settling in what is now England.

    It was originally ruled by the Wuffingas dynasty, who left the famous ship burial in Sutton Hoo.

    In the 9th century, it became the capital of Viking England, or the Danelaw, with the Saxons occupying Wessex.

    East Anglia is typically thought to be Suffolk and Norfolk – originally the South and North Folk of the ancient kingdom – but sometimes includes parts of Essex and Cambridgeshire.

    Famous East Anglians include Anne Boleyn, Admiral Nelson, the painter John Constable and Ed Sheeran.

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    It is also setting up new collaborations chefs and food activists.

    In February, a spokesperson for the museum said the renaming project began in 2018, with a consultation of staff, volunteers and trustees, before running a public survey. 

    ‘What came out of those conversations was that people weren’t really sure what was in the Museum of East Anglian life,’ the spokesperson said.

    ‘So that triggered us into thinking that we needed an easier to understand name for the museum.’

    Mr Attwood said the museum’s survey had around 300 responses, compared to more than 1,600 people who have signed his petition to date.

    ‘We need them to be honest with us,’ he said. ‘I would love to know what the evidential base of the change was.

    ‘We’ve asked the management again and again to explain their thinking, to help us understand why they came to the conclusion that East Anglia is such a confusing concept that it can’t even appear in the museum’s title, vision or mission statement.

    ‘For them to make such a big change, surely they will have proper data from their consultation — numbers, methodology, questions asked. 

    ‘But they won’t provide this to the people of the region and we can only conclude that no such research took place. 

    ‘Nor have they cited any local historians or heritage groups. 

    ‘All the evidence suggests that they decided to make this change and, when opposition intensified, they talked up whatever limited research they did. 

    ‘But if they can’t provide robust data for it then clearly it was insufficient and it needs to be run again, properly this time. That’s certainly the feeling of local heritage groups.’

    A spokesperson for the museum said that its research involved ‘consultation with audiences and stakeholders, including online surveys, on the street interviews, focus groups, web articles, press stories, displays and public events between 2018 and 2022’.

    They added: ‘After consultation closed, some people who did not respond during the four-year consultation have expressed unhappiness and a small group has unfortunately misunderstood our intentions. 

    ‘As a business and a charity, we have to balance these voices with the great deal of support voiced by our visitors who are enjoying the change – our recent visitor numbers surpass even pre-Covid figures.’

    Mr Attwood said concerned locals are speculating whether another museum celebrating a broader range of East Anglian culture is needed to fill a gap created by the Food Museum

    Mr Attwood said concerned locals are speculating whether another museum celebrating a broader range of East Anglian culture is needed to fill a gap created by the Food Museum

    Mr Attwood said that there is a strong local feeling against the change, with around two letters each week in the local newspaper documenting local frustrations. 

    ‘It’s a local museum but the management seems to have no desire to work with local people,’ Mr Attwood said. 

    ‘This is exemplified for me by the extraordinary general meeting on 11 March, when the board rushed these changes through unanimously. 

    ‘The petition was well above 1,000, the letters were rolling in to the local press and there’d just been a huge response to coverage on the local radio. 

    ‘The director, it appeared, had seen sense as I was invited in to meet her around this time. But, quietly, they had that meeting and pushed it all through. What an insult to local people.’

    Anna Smith, who signed the petition, said: ‘I grew up in East Anglia. I can’t believe what a daft idea this is to remove the cultural heritage. 

    ‘By all means adapt and add but don’t take away our sense of history and identity.’

    Another Suffolk resident, Elizabeth Simpson, signed the petition, saying: ‘It’s a disgrace to advertise this beautiful Museum in this way. Add food into the title, if you have to, but don’t take away East Anglian Life from the title.’

    A bread oven has been newly refurbished and is used for live demonstrations at the museum

    A bread oven has been newly refurbished and is used for live demonstrations at the museum

    Patrick Ryan, a writer from Belfast, said he was concerned about the future of the current collections.

    ‘As a former Research Fellow at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling, I am particularly concerned about the Ewart Evan’s collection at the Museum and how this change will accommodate access to the collection by current and future scholars,’ he said. 

    Mr Attwood said: ‘Many of us now feel that we may need to consider the possibility of starting a new museum with a direct emphasis on East Anglia — and if that happens, perhaps the Food Museum will no longer be the best place for its collection.’ 

    The museum spokesperson added: ‘East Anglia – the breadbasket of England – remains at the heart of the museum and we continue to represent the social, cultural, industrial and technological heritage of the region in our collections and displays. 

    ‘In recent years the museum has fundraised towards the restoration of Eastbridge Windpump, restoring the “Empress of Britain” steam traction engine, conserved many of the large pieces of farming machinery in our collection and moved them into a covered display area and we are due to complete restoration work of Alton Watermill to open to the public in late June.

    ‘Alongside this, we have run new family activities aimed at teaching children and adults to cook and grow vegetables. 

    ‘We have planted an orchard, created a farm area with local and rare breeds. We are currently travelling around East Anglian villages with our ‘Food Stories’ exhibition which collects recipes and local dialect. 

    ‘We have exciting plans to reinterpret our Second World War collection to tell stories about the impact of rationing on health and diet and the stories of the Land Army.

    ‘We are keen to get our historic kitchens out of storage and bring them to life as a living display, responding to people’s cherished memories of family cooking.’ 

    Mr Attwood said that some parts of the site have become ‘uninspired’ over the last five years.

    ‘Growing up, it was very much a living museum — interactive.

    ‘Now the buildings are rotting. The old blacksmith’s has deteriorated. They can’t keep the existing collection in good shape.’

    The museum spokesperson said that ‘staff and volunteers work tirelessly’ to care for its open-air collection against the elements.

    ‘The museum will continue to manage its collections in line with best practice and with the resources it has, as well as continuing to fundraise towards further conservation work,’ they added.

    ‘As an independent museum that has finite resources and has to raise its own funding to care for a collection of around 40,000 objects and 75 acres, we take seriously our duty to continuously review our business model to ensure that we remain sustainable, relevant and enjoyable to visit.

    ‘We encourage visitors to judge for themselves, and see how the museum’s collection and the rich heritage of food and farming in this region are celebrated with an interactive and immersive visitor experience that will continue to protect the museum for generations to come.’