Do Museums Have Value?

Apparently not much! In recent weeks I have heard of the closure of at least two museums in the north-east of England with which I have had connections.

The DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will be closing in April, despite a campaign to keep it open. The museum is the depository for huge numbers of artefacts connected with the history of the Durham Light Infantry and its forebears. The regiment has close connections with all communities across the north-east and it is ironic that it should be closing in the middle of centenary commemorations for the First World War and the 70th anniversaries of events in the Second World War. Many local families, including my own, have gifted personal items into their collection. It is proposed to put the collection into permanent storage, though apparently this will be in a disused former tobacco factory on a short lease and with presumably dubious atmospheric conditions for conservation purposes. The museum was housed in a modern building in extensive parkland that was used recreationally by local people, including events at the museum such as those for fathers and children on a Saturday morning. It is proposed to sell the land for redevelopment, so there will be no turning back at a later date in better times.

The facilities at Bede’s World in Jarrow were closed at short notice in February. The site has national and global significance, as this is where the Venerable Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English People during the early 700s. He was locally born and is nationally and internationally renowned. Until recently Bede’s World was directed by Mike Benson, assisted by Kathy Cremin and a host of enthusiastic volunteers, young apprentices, former offenders and local people. It was buzzing with social and cultural significance, the second place that Mike and Kathy have enthused with their particular vision for heritage. Sadly, the Charitable Trust was not up the task and went into liquidation and all this hard work, hope and energy has been wasted by men in suits. Mike has gone on to the National Coal Mining Museum in Yorkshire (I wonder how much longer that will survive in the current climate, since it is quite remote) while Kathy has left the museum sector.

In recent decades, £millions have been poured into the heritage sector only for recent austerity measures and economic downturn to render the survival of the institutions in doubt. Not even major national museums are exempt. The National Railway Museum took millions from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other national funding bodies to open up its library and archives seven days a week, all year round in a new facility called Search Engine. That vision survived only a few years before staff cuts were made and opening hours shredded. The same sad story is affecting museums, archives and libraries across the country – though there will always be a hand in the till for London and the facilities for the élite few.

And why? In the last analysis it is to prop up the bankers and their culture of high salaries and bonuses for failure. Usually this is couched by the politicians in terms of ‘fiscal responsibility’. Where is the responsibility in trashing the country’s social and cultural heritage in this way? Where is the responsibility in trashing facilities for the disadvantaged, the sick and the poor?

The Big Question is ‘Where the hell is the opposition?’ Why is the population of this country just accepting of this? Where is the clarion call from the so-called anti-austerity ‘Hard Left’ Labour Party leadership? It would seem they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

Short answer: sorry, Britain, you get exactly what you deserve. If you sit on your hands – this is what you get and what you, by default, have asked for.

I was recently involved in an AHRC funded project asking the question: who makes heritage decisions? Not the ordinary people, that’s for sure. That was the doubt I began with and the one I still end with.

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When the last pit closes

Yesterday the last shift clocked off at Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire, marking the end of deep coal mining in the UK. There will be mixed feelings among the men and their families and the communities in which they live (many of them do not live locally but commute from long dead mining villages elsewhere). To get an idea of what it means you could do worse than read Richard Benson’s The Village.

Memories will cling. Pitmen form only a small part of my ancestral legacy, but nevertheless are part of my consciousness as a lad from County Durham. My father, Ray Bashforth, was a painter and decorator and his father was a plasterer, and before that there was a long male line of metal workers of one sort or another stretching back to the late 17th century, with a side line in keeping alehouses. My grandfather, Thomas Bashforth, would have been very familiar with colliers when he served in 11th Durham Light Infantry in WW1 – most of the recruits were pit men from Durham and Northumberland.

On the maternal side my mother’s grandfathers had connections. While Jim Martin was a cabinet maker by trade, after his own father, he was not very assiduous. He was more interested in his alternative career as a minor professional cricketer, as much for its alcoholic convivial side as anything. Because of that he was often on his travels in search of work and pit villages provided jobs for carpenters – hence Elsecar in Yorkshire and Bishop Auckland in County Durham.

My mother’s favourite grandfather was indeed a coal miner. Joe Percival was born illegitimate in Dirtpot near Allenheads and was farmed out to a lead mining family. He began his working life washing lead ore but when the trade went into decline he and the rest of the family headed for the Durham coalfields and he ended up at Toronto pit near Bishop Auckland.

Mam had two particular recollections of him. Sitting down to his meal, often some sort of meat and potato stew, he would exclaim to his wife, the redoubtable Alice, “Weers t’cyaks, mother?” – a reference to the plain scones that were a component of stews and mince. Aged 4 or 5, she also remembered him in his last years (he died in 1918 aged 58 of chronic nephritis) sitting on a straight backed chair outside his terrace house in Frederick Street, enjoying the sunshine on his face.

The men from Kellingley will have their own contradictory feelings this weekend after leaving such a mucky, dangerous job, but may appreciate the chance of sunshine on their backs rather than the threat of roof falls.

My personal memories from growing up in County Durham include the effects of pit closures. I recall the slag heaps next to the A1 at Ferryhill, newly sown with grass seed in the early 1960s – they called it landscaping. I also recall having to walk the gauntlet of gangs of youths in Darlington on a Saturday night near the bus station. Already suffering from the economic and social blight of closures, the lads and lasses from rival former pit villages found weekly entertainment in facing each other off.

My fondest memory however was a conversation with Jack Elliott of Birtley at Darlington Folk Club in 1963. He was an ex-miner turned folk singer and founder of a folk music dynasty. I remember his songs, but I also remember he told me that he would put the flags out when the last pit closed, for all his repertoire celebrated the miners and their lives. Are the flags out now, Jack?