Sharon Heal

Why don't more museums strike an emotional chord?

Sharon Heal, 17.09.2013
A morning in Barnsley with the Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican
Last week I made an emotional connection in a museum. In fact I made several. It's not the kind of thing that normally happens to me; I don't usually get that whole "transfigured in front of great art" feeling.

But at Experience Barnsley (great museum, odd name) I was moved. I laughed out loud, I swallowed hard on a lump in my throat, I welled up and I felt a sense of belonging that I can't ever recall feeling in a museum or gallery.

If you're not brought up going to museums (I wasn't, I missed the one school trip to Leeds Museum and bitterly regretted not encountering the famous tiger) it's hard to know how to act or to learn the way of seeing that seems to come so easily to others.

Not so at Experience Barnsley. Here is an institution that despite, or maybe because of, its location in the town hall, locals flock to and feel ownership of.

There's no quietly standing around and politely whispering. Visitors and staff interact with an ease that other institutions should envy.

I'm sure the fact that the museum's collection has been built from the bottom up, by local people, has a lot to do with it. The town was without a local history collection - it has some archaeology that had been dispersed to various neighbouring museums and is now been repatriated.

So the staff from the museum service took the approach of building the collection by appealing to communities and local history groups.

The resulting displays are based on community donations and consultation and they are among the best that I have seen. Themed showcases hold objects with local resonance and alongside them are photographs of donors with captions explaining their significance.

This peopling of the displays is echoed in real time by the visitors who talk and question, reminiscing and speculating with fondness about the objects and the stories they tell.

But it's not all nostalgia and rose-tinted specs. There is real regret for the passing of the town's industrial past and the communities that were wrought from it; and the bitterness of industrial disputes and political neglect is also captured and explored.

A deep vein of belonging was tapped in me when I listened to the tracks in Barnsley Performs. Kate Rusby's song, My Young Man, with Grimethorpe Coliiery Band on backing, relates to her grandfather developing emphysema from working as a miner and is sweet and soulful.

The Ballad of Andy Jacobs by Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman took me straight back to the searing intensity of the miners' strike.

And just when there was a danger of me falling for a sentimental version of my past, the hilarious Tarnlife by the Bar Steward Sons of Val Donican had me laughing out loud with their clever piss-take of Blur's Parklife.

There’s plenty of local pride at Experience Barnsley but it doesn't succumb to picture-postcard tourist board promo. The clever combination of real people telling real stories runs through this museum and strikes an emotional chord and makes it a winner. Other museums could do well to learn form it.

The Emotional Museum is one of the themes for this year’s Museums Association conference, which takes place in Liverpool on 11-12 November.


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20.09.2013, 11:37
Experience Barnsley, here we come!