Ruffley Speaking - Suffolk life in all its glory

Friday, 29 June, 2012

The Diamond Jubilee. Our country hosting the Olympics. Our battling national football team showing grit and determination. Makes you proud to be British.


As I passed an agreeable afternoon with Suffolk charity leaders, teachers and Armed

Forces personnel at the Queen’s Garden Party, in Sandringham, I had a further thought.


When Cecil Rhodes said: “To be born in England is to have won the first prize in the lottery of life” shouldn’t he really have said “to be born in Suffolk”?


Look at the cultural heritage we have right here. Of course, we all recognise the big skies and picturesque villages. But how much do we know about the people who have lived and worked here over countless generations? What was life really like for them?


To find out, take my advice and check out the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) in Stowmarket. It is 75 acres of great Suffolk heritage.


The museum opened its doors to the public in 1967. The Suffolk Local History Council led the way in conserving and displaying local agricultural and industrial artefacts so that we never forget how we came to have the county we do today.


Following tireless work, the exhibitions found a home in Abbot’s Hall and its surrounding land, thanks to the bequest of Misses Vera and Ena Longe, two elderly Suffolk spinsters.


In ten large buildings, including restored medieval barns, there are over 40,000 objects, as well as photographs and books to tell the stories of life in our East Anglian villages.


If you enjoyed the radio series A History of the World in 100 Objects, bythe British Museum’s Neil MacGregor, then MEAL is for you.


The beautiful Queen Anne style Abbot’s Hall, which has just been reopened,

has nine exhibition rooms to give visitors the chance to see parts of the museum collection that have never been on public display before.


The Crowe Street cottages give an insight into the lives of labourers in Suffolk. These newly restored estate workers’ cottages date back from the 18th Century. Their last occupant, Emily Wilding, ran a dairy from the rear of the building. When she left she donated all her belongings to MEAL and was interviewed about her working life.


That great worldwide bestseller about Suffolk in the last century – Ronald

Blythe’s Akenfield – is brought to life by these artefacts.


Take a look around. An old grocer’s shop with its brands and packaging. A Victorian

schoolroom with rows of desks and benches. Home interiors from the 1900s to

the 1950s to give a real sense of what ‘home’ meant to Suffolk folk.


But the East Anglian story is not just a pastoral one. We do industry as well.

It is reassuring to know that brewing and malting is still a powerhouse of Suffolk

industry – Greene King in Bury St Edmunds, Muntons in Stowmarket – both big national heavy hitters in the corporate world. In the museum we can look back at

this history which includes traditional hand tools and locally-made machinery dating from the 1840s – a far cry from the efficient mass production we have now.


Other industries perhaps not quite as common as they used to be in Suffolk include ropemaking, horsehair and silk manufacture and basket making. But the museum has displays of these trades. We can even see traditional skills in action, including hurdle and charcoal making and a fully functioning print workshop, manned by dedicated volunteers.


But MEAL does more than showcase the past. The ‘Making Memories’ project was

run with a special “grassroots grant” from the Suffolk Foundation for people with

dementia as well as their friends, family and carers. Working with organisations

such as the Suffolk Museum Association, Suffolk Age UK and the Alzheimer’s

Society, a programme of events were run across museums in Suffolk.


MEAL ran a traditional village tea in the Great Barn with the East Anglian Music

Trust bringing along traditional Suffolk ‘jig dolls’ to create an engaging and

entertaining environment.


So what about the future? Last year four people received the funding to start careers

in museums through a special Heritage Lottery fund to receive training and work

in museums across Suffolk. The museum is also a part of the £350,000 Skills for the

Future Partnership project.


The Museum of East Anglian Daily Life allows us to capture a snapshot of our past,

but it’s clear that they are looking to the future. Museums support jobs and the

Suffolk economy.


Museums can also engage and support civil society. Go to MEAL and come away

with a renewed sense of pride in Suffolk, God’s own country.