A tale of a city and a town

Sharon Heal, 12.03.2014
An eye-opening trip up north
Last week I took a trip to Yorkshire. It's my native county and always a pleasure to go back. This visit was made more poignant because it was the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike.

My first stop was Doncaster. It's a while since I was last there and I was shocked by the decline of the once impressive industrial city.

In the city centre the only things that appeared to be thriving were pound shops, cheap cafes and even cheaper pubs. It used to be a proud place built on coal and the railways but now it seems like every other shop is closed.

I was there to visit Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery because it is hosting a Museums Association members’ meeting next month. I think it’s crucial that the MA connects with members in the regions and nations, and these meetings are an invaluable way of doing that.

The members’ meetings are also a good opportunity to catch up with colleagues and see what they are doing in their museums. It’s easy to get trapped in your institution and bogged down with heavy workloads and limited resources; the meetings are an opportunity to break free of that for a short while.

In Doncaster I saw a lovely exhibition of prints inspired by the landscape and wildlife of the Don Valley by local artist Stuart Brocklehurst. I was struck by the sense of local pride in this exhibition, something that could restore the faith of a battered community.

The other temporary exhibition was a series of moving images by photographer Andrew Foley of local pit sites. The photographs show how the local landscape has changed since the closure of the pits after the strike.

It is interspersed with stark and heart-breaking statistics:

  • 195,000 workers employed in the UK coal industry in 1984
  • 4,500 workers employed in the UK coal industry in 2013
  • 44 collieries in Barnsley, Doncaster and South Yorkshire Coal Fields in 1984
  • 1 colliery in Barnsley, Doncaster and South Yorkshire Coal Fields in 2013.

I was inspired by this short visit to tweet that national museum directors – and other senior figures in the sector – should perhaps consider doing secondments in cash-strapped local authority museums.

Not for the expertise that they could bring to the local venue but for the insight they could gain from being at the real coalface of community work and engagement on limited resources.

After Doncaster I dropped in to the opening of the Women Against Pit Closures exhibition at Experience Barnsley.

Local pride shows in this new museum and the investment has paid off with civic spaces  - the town hall and the surrounding centre  - reclaimed for the people of the area. Investment in culture and infrastructure has kept the town alive and it feels as if there's hope still.

There was no collection to speak of ten years ago and staff have built one through sustained engagement with local people. As a result locals clearly feel ownership of the museum.

The temporary exhibition was honest, not rose-tinted or nostalgic, and focused on the women. Nearly everything was donated or lent by local people.

Young women from the youth panel have made an animation that reinterprets the miners’ wives song We Are Women. At the end of the animation the younger women are joined in song by women from the original Women Against Pit Closure campaign.

It is a moving and inspirational example of how museums can connect generations and help people understand the past and our role in history.

A pop-up version of the Women Against Pit Closures exhibition will be on display at the MA conference.