Since 1951, the Museum of English Rural Life has collected objects, archives, books, journals, photographs and films that tell the story of food and farming in England. Its collection – which includes over 4 kilometres of archives, 1 million photographs and over 50,000 books – has been officially Designated as outstanding by Arts Council England.

Open to all free of charge, the museum regularly holds seminars, conferences, and workshops. The MERL documents the development of British agricultural practices, science, and representation; key resources in the University’s Special Collections – notably the Bee Collection and the papers of Waldorf Astor – complement these collections.

The natural history collections held by the University – the Cole Museum and the Herbarium, provide excellent research and teaching resources on the biological sciences that inform our understanding of food and farming.


For over a century, the University of Reading has produced world-class agricultural and food-related research across a range of disciplines – from nutrition and microbiology through to soil science and dairying. Our research centres include include CAER, the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research, the National Fruit Collection, and the Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition. Its research excellence is well-matched by the quality, breadth, and variety of its collections.

In addition, the Centre for Health Humanities is a multidisciplinary group whose interests coalesce around the themes of health, sickness, and wellbeing.

The MERL project Nutrition, Health and Rural England, funded by The Wellcome Trust, examined the past, present and future science of rural life, and revealed compelling stories of nutrition, health and medicine from our collections.


The MERL Photographic Collections

With more than a million images, The MERL is one of the United Kingdom’s largest specialist sources for pictures of farming and rural life. Many of the images seen in the MERL galleries are from these collections.

Dairy Collection at the MERL

We have over 4000 printed items from specialist dairying libraries that have closed, including reports, pamphlets and overseas publications. Even more may be found in the main MERL Library and in our MAFF Library collection

MERL objects: farming history

Farming emerged nearly 12,000 years ago and is now the world’s main source of food. Explore objects from The MERL and the Pitt Rivers Museum which highlight how different farming practices affect our lives, our health and our environments.

Hugh Sinclair

Sinclair was the Director of the Oxford Nutrition Survey (ONS) from 1942-7. The ONS carried out surveys for the Government on a wide range of groups in the UK, such as pregnant women, students and manual workers. The surveys were used to help ensure that ration levels were sufficient for maintaining a healthy population. One was his interest in the relative deficiency of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids (EFAs) which he felt was the main cause of various ‘diseases of civilization’ such as heart disease. Largely with independent means, he set up the International Institute of Human Nutrition (IIHN) in 1972 and spent the rest of his life trying to raise funds for what he saw as a key research institute for the study of nutrition.