Mining a rich seam - Museums Association

Mining a rich seam

Britain’s history is intrinsically linked to heavy industry. But how do you make it relevant and engaging to today’s audiences?
Industrial
A child looking at the Lion Salt Works Museum’s automaton Photograph by Bernard Rose

In the 1920s, nearly 1.2 million people were employed in coalmining in the UK – a century later, the closest you are probably going to get to a working miner is at a museum such as the Big Pit in Blaenavon, where former colliers now host the underground tours.

The Big Pit – which is one of Amgueddfa Cymru’s (National Museum Wales – NMW) three industrial sites – is among the many museums that tell the story of the UK’s industrial heritage, trying to make it relevant and engaging to today’s audiences. 

NMW’s National Wool Museum in the village of Drefach Felindre was once the centre of Wales’s woollen industry.

“It is vital to celebrate this story, for the local community and a wider audience, so people can understand how the area developed, and appreciate the stories of the industry that once went on here,” says Ann Whittall, the head of the museum.

“We celebrate this story by ensuring that we keep the historic textile machinery skills alive, demonstrating our working machinery and showcasing the products of the woollen industry from across Wales.”

The National Wool Museum, in Drefach Felindre, demonstrates working machinery
Cultural landscape

NMW’s National Slate Museum was boosted last July with the news that Unesco had named the Welsh Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales a World Heritage Site.

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“The award reflects the significance of the industry, recognising it as a truly important cultural landscape, just as important as the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge,” says Elen Roberts, the head of the National Slate Museum.

For NMW, highlighting traditional skills and passing these on to the next generation is a key aim at its industrial sites. One of the highlights of a visit to the slate museum is the slate-splitting demonstration.

“Visitors of all ages marvel at the skill of our quarrymen and appreciate that they’ve worked in the industry before coming to the museum – lived experience is highly valued,” says Roberts.

“The ingenuity at the heart of industrial museums is relevant today. The engineers and craftsmen who worked here were valued for the innovative solutions they brought to the challenges they faced – skills that are still sought in today’s workforce.”

Kim Streets, the chief executive of Sheffield Museums, says supporting skills development and people’s creativity is important across the organisation’s sites, including its industrial venues: Kelham Island Museum, Shepherd Wheel and Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet.

The three venues joined Graves Gallery, Weston Park Museum and Millennium Gallery last April when Museums Sheffield and Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust merged to become Sheffield Museums.

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Streets says the new organisation wants to celebrate excellence in craft and industry, and the creativity and innovation that have become synonymous with the city.

“Making, innovation, ideas and creativity are all there,” says Streets. “They bind the museums together and we are bringing that out across the sites. It is not all about the product but the blood, sweat and tears that went into making it. People are excited about those stories of lived experience in the workplace.”

Sheffield Museums, which includes Kelham Island Museum, wants to celebrate excellence in craft and industry

West Cheshire Museums, part of Cheshire West and Chester Council, is also working hard to make its industrial sites – the Lion Salt Works, Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse, and Stretton Mill – engaging.

“Industrial heritage has never been more relevant,” says Kate Harland, the museum and heritage manager at West Cheshire Museums. “Although it is only part of our overall proposition [the service also operates Grosvenor Museum], in a time of climate crisis, we have the opportunity, through our museums, to reframe how people understand the background to subjects such as the Industrial Revolution.”

West Cheshire Museums is expanding the range of environmentally sustainable products in its cafes and retail outlets, including more locally sourced products. Weaver Hall Museum and Workhouse has started a Clothes Swap scheme to ensure that items are recycled rather than thrown away.

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“In the case of Lion Salt Works, we are aware that we have a role in telling the story of early industrial pollution created by the coal that fuelled the heating of the large open-pan, salt-making process,” says Harland. “This is a subject that we plan to address as part of further climate-change projects.”

The climate crisis is a key issue at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, as is ensuring that the stories it tells appeal to today’s broad audiences.

“Our founding vision was not simply to illustrate Manchester’s industrial history, but to inspire the scientists and innovators of the future,” says Sally MacDonald, the museum’s director. “The pandemic has taught us to embrace uncertainty as a healthy catalyst to innovate with new narratives and audience-engagement methods.

“Representation is vital and we have exciting work happening with local, regional and national partners to ensure our narratives are relevant and inclusive, and that we include historically underrepresented perspectives.”

One project that reflects this work is a collaborative PhD with the University of East Anglia looking at the development of Manchester’s cotton industry in a global context, including its connections with imperialism and the slave trade.

A new public history collaboration, Global Threads, is also under way with University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery.

This research into Manchester’s buildings, locations, memorials and museum objects is drawing out new stories of lived experience, resistance and solidarity in relation to colonialism, enslavement and the city’s cotton economy.

Along with the National Railway Museum, Leeds Industrial Museum and the universities of York, Sheffield and Leeds, the museum is also a partner in the Slavery and Steam: Steam Power, Railways and Colonialism project, which aims to stimulate research, build networks and raise awareness of the link between slavery, steam power and the development of railways.

Going full circle

The Science and Industry Museum is also restoring its Grade-II listed Power Hall. Built in 1855, the Power Hall houses Europe’s largest collection of working steam engines, most of which were built in Manchester. The £6m restoration and redisplay will enable the museum to power these steam engines via a ground-source heat pump, and to tell the story of the first industrial revolution and the transition to green energy.

“The decarbonisation of the museum site is a direct result of redisplaying the Power Hall and demonstrates a full circle from how industrialisation began, and its reliance on fossil fuels, to how we can now fuel and power our engines in a greener, more sustainable way,” says MacDonald.

Preserving Scotland’s industrial heritage

Scotland’s federation of independent industrial museums has launched a nationwide project to improve conservation skills and ensure important and at-risk industrial artefacts are saved for future generations.

Industrial Museums Scotland’s two-year Powering Our People project is designed to ensure its 14 members have a trained and knowledgeable workforce that can care for nationally significant collections.

The move comes after a skills review led by Industrial Museums Scotland confirmed that funding cuts over recent years have led to fewer staff and an increasing shortage of specialist training.

The £230,000 project is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Museums Galleries Scotland, Pilgrim Trust, Historic Environment Scotland, Headley Trust and Gordon Fraser Charitable Trust.

Caroline Clark, the director of the National Lottery Heritage Fund in Scotland, says: “Scotland’s industrial heritage, from shipbuilding to coalmining, is a vital part of our nation’s story, and it is essential that we keep the skills alive to care for the industrial heritage collections we hold around the country.”

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