Food is the future for the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket, says director

Jenny Cousins

Jenny Cousins - Credit: Archant

Walking around the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket there is a great deal to see across its 75-acre site.

Museum of East Anglian Life - old plough provides a static display in the museum grounds. Picture: G

Museum of East Anglian Life - old plough provides a static display in the museum grounds. Picture: GREGG BROWN - Credit: Gregg Brown

There are examples of old agricultural machinery, a rare breeds farm, a wonderful old forge from the Suffolk village of Grundisburgh that has been painstakingly reassembled and a large barn showcasing rural crafts such as barrel-making - to name but a few.

In fact, with so much to take in, it can be difficult to describe succinctly what visitors can expect on a day out.

And it this task - deciding on a fresh and inspiring new identity for the museum - that has exercised its director, Jenny Cousins, since she took up the position a year ago.

“I have spent a lot of time talking to people to identify what the museum stands for,” she said.

The Museum of East Anglian Life - barrel making display

The Museum of East Anglian Life - barrel making display - Credit: Archant

“It’s clear that the impetus that set the museum up is not the one that is going to sustain it. At the time the museum was established 50 years ago there was this perception of massive change and a loss of a certain way of life that is symbolised by horse-powered agriculture.

“More people worked on the land and there were societies built around it whereas today fewer than 1% of the UK population works in agriculture – there isn’t the same familiarity today with the kind of things we have in the collection.”

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Museum of food

The Museum of East Anglian Life - horse hair display

The Museum of East Anglian Life - horse hair display - Credit: Archant

And while nostalgia is a key element of the museum’s attraction, Jenny says for it to flourish it must be forward-looking and relevant to a modern audience.

The answer, she and other stakeholders believe, is to re-position the Museum of East Anglian Life as a museum about food.

Jenny continued: “When you look at what links together what we have here – it’s food.

“The different pieces of agricultural machinery tell you about how food production has changed, and how what we eat has changed over time.

“For example, we have a wind pump that was used to drain the levels, so more land could be used for agriculture, and an old water mill that used to process grain.”

But Jenny’s long-term vision is to complement existing exhibits with a number of new attractions, helped, hopefully, by a £1.9m Heritage Lottery Fund grant the museum recently applied for.

A key part of the proposal is to convert outbuildings into an interactive kitchen where groups can get involved in “historic processes” like cheese and bread making, and brewing. Plans are afoot to plant an orchard on site to produce heritage varieties and to bolster the rare breeds farm with Suffolk’s own Red Poll cattle and Appleyard ducks.

Ambitious vision

As well as looking at the past, a key aim of the new museum will be to promote seasonal and healthy eating, and food sustainability.

“Historical approaches are one of the things people are looking at as part of the solution to current problems,” said Jenny

“There are things you can learn by looking back – both mistakes, as well as things that have worked.

“It’s not about taking people back to some kind of past that was idyllic - it’s about making people think about how things were done differently.”

It’s an ambitious vision but one that Jenny is well-qualified to oversee.

Prior to joining the museum in 2016, she lead a five-year £5m redevelopment of the American Air Museum at Imperial War Museum Duxford. An Oxford graduate, Jenny also worked for English Heritage at one time and was involved in major exhibition projects that included Charles Darwin’s home, Down House and Dover Castle’s Dunkirk Experience.

She has been a member of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s London Committee since 2014, and is one of its youngest decision-makers.

The Museum of East Anglian Life has already received some good new with regards to funding and this year became one of 57 museums in the country selected by Arts Council England to become a National Portfolio Organisation.

“It’s great news for us, and a great vote of confidence in the future of the museum,” Jenny continued.

“It will provide us with around £150,000 for four years – about a third - of the museums annual funding and is the difference between having stability and not. It will enable us to be innovative, to push the boat out and try some stuff with a view to engaging new audiences and bringing people into the museum.”

But the longer term view is all about building on the food theme - a subject Jenny says ties in with some of the goals of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).

She added: “I’d like us to be more of showcase of what the region is good at.

“Wouldn’t it be great that in East Anglia, which is known as ‘the breadbasket of England’, we could establish a national museum of food.”