A bad curator blames their tools

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

M-Shed, tells the story of Bristol especially its industrial and social history

I have been a member of the Social History Curators Group (SHCG) for a few years now. Of all the professional groups and societies dedicated to museum and collections work I have found SHCG to be the most useful. Most degrees and qualifications in museum studies (or indeed heritage management) lack opportunities for sustained subject-specialist training unless it is part of an internship, vocational attachment or similar activity. That’s why SHCG and other curatorial networks are so important.

FirstBASE is SHCG’s recently launched online resources centre, an invaluable library of information for anyone dealing with social (and industrial) collections. SHCG also organises training events and when I saw one advertised for identifying tools I leapt at the opportunity. Here is my review, which will also appear in a forthcoming SHCG newsletter.

Training Review: What is it? Identifying mystery objects: trade tools

Venue: M-Shed, Bristol, 4 March 2013

I didn’t know a twybil from an adze before the training. By the end of the day I could enthusiastically explain the difference between a dado plane and a plough plane.

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Approaches to regenerating industrial heritage sites

Vivian and Sons engine house and chimney, 1860, Hafod Copperworks, Swansea

Vivian and Sons engine house and chimney, 1860, Hafod Copperworks, Swansea

Following on from my survey of industrial heritage education this article discusses different approaches to the regeneration of industrial heritage sites. By their very nature, industrial heritage sites are often also classed as ‘brownfield’ sites and therefore fairer game for redevelopment than areas of ‘greenfield’.

This was well-illustrated in English Heritage’s Industrial Heritage at Risk report of 2011. I was particularly taken by the figure that placed metal and coal mines most at risk in the Register.

I live and work amongst the most significant mine workings in the world (West Cornwall) and the conservation work on mine workings over the last 30 years has been extensive, culminating in the inscription of the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape in 2006. The Cornish engine house is now an icon that is synonymous with Cornish identity and culture and several sites have regenerated into visitor attractions so compared with many other parts of the world mining heritage, at least here seems to be enjoying a new lease of life.

Having worked extensively on historic copper smelting landscapes, particularly of the Lower Swansea Valley, that really are in danger of physical collapse and until recently, erasure from collective memory, I wonder about the criteria for assessing risk? Some of this is bound up in the different statuses of structures that are Scheduled or Listed. I have recently completed work on producing a prospectus for the heritage-led regeneration of the old Swansea copperworks sites of Hafod and Morfa and it became quickly evident that those structures that were not Scheduled or Listed were most in danger of being omitted altogether from the regeneration plans. Listing and scheduling can create islands out of features that were once part of inter-dependent working landscapes.

Heritage-led regeneration at industrial heritage sites have also brought extensive opportunities for bring large properties and land back into use while also preserving some of an area’s historical character.

Heritage-led regeneration: Reuse vs visitor attraction

Industrial heritage sites, like other historic structures and landscapes, have undergone regeneration in a variety of ways. The benefits or otherwise of reusing a building for new purposes such as housing, retail, other commercial uses or as a museum or cultural centre have recently been debated on a LinkedIn thread on the use of industrial complexes as cultural centres.

As part of my report in the regeneration of the Hafod-Morfa copperworks site I had a stab at trying to categorise different types of heritage-led regeneration in a UK context although it is fair to apply several of these categories to industrial heritage in Europe and beyond.

  1. The open-air museum.
  2. The working museum/site which retains traditional processes and products.
  3. Industrial park with visitor centre or museum as central focus.
  4. An industrial building or complex converted exclusively to heritage activity.
  5. Brownfield site regeneration which retains heritage features and offers some interpretation but primarily functions with unrelated businesses and activities.
  6. Conserved structures retained in the landscape with no designated centre and minimal interpretation.

The following examples have been chosen to be representative of the full range of industrial heritage site or landscape present in the UK and are not intended to be geographically inclusive. In addition there are great numbers of projects that have regenerated industrial buildings but could not be considered ‘heritage-led’, for example the Toffee Factory in Newcastle which might be usefully defined in a seventh category of ‘vestige’. A sort of façadism. This is not a criticism, it just isn’t what I would call ‘heritage-led’.

Examples

1. Amberley Museum and Heritage Centre
Situated in the former Amberley Chalk Pits, now dedicated to the industrial heritage of the whole of South East England featuring narrow gauge railway and historic bus service, traditional craft demonstrations and a regular series of events and festivals.

2. Whitchurch Silk Mill
Working early nineteenth-century silk mill in Hampshire, still producing traditionally-woven silk for interior design. Visitors can see the internal workings of the mill and silk weavers at looms (now powered by electricity, not mill wheel).

3. Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum and Country Park
Set in spent china clay pits which have been largely given over to park and woodland with museum containing displays and artefacts from the industry, access to viewing point to see a commercially working neighbouring pit, and access to Clay Trails cycle route.

4. STEAM. Museum of the Great Western Railway
Situated in the restored former Swindon Grade II-listed railway works. The entire works complex has been integrated into a single museum building. Displays incorporate artefacts, static locomotives, archives, film and audio footage of the railway and dioramas. The museum runs themed and non-heritage events programme.

5. Heartlands, Cornwall
Set in the derelict area around Robinson’s Shaft, previously part of South Crofty tin mines, in Pool, Cornwall, the complex is now billed as a ‘cultural playground’ with ‘state of the art’ exhibition space containing displays related to Cornish mining, an adventure playground themed on Cornish mythology, landscaped gardens with flora and features related to Cornish migration abroad, craft studios and offices, and soon to be extended to a new housing estate. One of the site’s principal attractions are its rolling series of events, markets and activities for visiting schools.

6. Derwent Valley Mills
World Heritage Site since 2001, designated as the ‘birthplace of the factory system’ for textile production, it comprises a series of conserved water mills along a 15-mile stretch of the River Derwent from Matlock Bath to Derby. The Derwent Valley Heritage Way has been instituted as a series of walks which lead visitors through the landscape’s historical and natural environments.

Conclusions

Let’s state the obvious first. There are many approaches to heritage-led regeneration. Each is specific to the period in which the site was redeveloped, the funding available, the potential for future income and the vision of those charged with undertaking it. Some are more successful than others. In many cases it is too early to tell what will actually become of the industrial heritage of the site or area.

And this brings me to my second conclusion and one about which I will write more soon, that the interpretation of a site’s industrial past is crucial in qualifying it as ‘heritage-led’. Interpretation can take many forms, such as activity or demonstration as in allowing the public to view Victorian silk weaving techniques at Whitchurch Silk Mill, through displays and exhibitions, through a sensory experience such as riding on the narrow gauge railway at Amberley, or just simple self-guided heritage trails–using a leaflet or smartphone app.

I fear that sites more recently regenerated are allowing interpretation and opportunities for immersion in the industrial past to play second fiddle to ‘inspired by’ activities such as art installations, public sculpture and the performance of plays. These are stylised activities that may entertain but often do not convey an authentic sense of the past to audiences, even if they are infused by it. And at sites that were hives of activity, often busy, smelly and noisy, the experience you get at many industrial heritage sites and lanscapes is almost the opposite..

Leach Pottery: An essay for radio

I wrote this short essay for a hypothetical radio programme when I applied to the BBC Radio 3/AHRC New Generation Thinkers competition in December 2010. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a finalist out of over 1000 applicants and attend a thought-provoking workshop. Although I did not make the final ten I wanted to share the work I prepared for the competition here. Next I will post my idea for a radio series on the history of copper.

A visit to the Leach Pottery, St Ives, Cornwall, May 2009

Leach Pottery Standard Ware mug and Turmeric/Grape Virginia Creeper silk dupion by Clarissa Hulse

Enlightened design: Leach Pottery Standard Ware mug and Turmeric/Grape Virginia Creeper silk dupion by Clarissa Hulse

My morning breaks will never be the same again. The small steel teaspoon chimes, rather than clinks, as I stir together frothy milk and velveteen coffee in my new Leach Pottery cup. As I stare longingly at the ever-decreasing swirls I remember my visit to the Leach Pottery Studio and Museum in St Ives, Cornwall. The burnished yellow ochre glaze, the exquisite lip and the pleasing weight of the finely turned stoneware has placed 90 years of British studio pottery into my hands.

An unpromising walk from the centre of town brings you to an equally unpromising house at Higher Stennack. But don’t be discouraged. Venture in and you too will become students of the two most significant pioneers of artist pottery: Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. The pair established the pottery in 1920 after they met while Leach was an apprentice potter in Japan. As you step quietly around the recently restored studio and galleries, around the climbing kiln and along the delicate wooden platforms you can’t fail to become absorbed in the ideals of functional beauty that Leach spent so many years learning and teaching. The early decades of studio pottery in Britain embodied a marriage of philosophy and thought from east and west.

While wandering around the galleries you begin to learn how to read the pots. They were not just exquisite to look at. Leach created objects that were statements against the shallow conceits of many fine art ceramics. Now I could begin to understand what he meant by the standard forms of unity, spontaneity and simplicity (explained in “A Potter’s Book,” 1940). There is enlightenment in simple design, colour, texture and shape. This museum is dedicated to keeping this philosophy alive and so who could resist bringing some of it back home?

Exhibition reviews on Creative Spaces

I thought about using Past Thinking as the place for exhibition and book reviews on museumy subjects that interest me, but instead I would like to contribute to content creation on Creative Spaces (National Museums Online Learning Project) particularly when the reviews related to items in the nine museum collections it hosts.

I have recently contributed two reviews, and added them to two groups I run. The first is a short response to Shah ‘Abbas at the British Museum and the second is in response to Byzantium at the Royal Academy.

Read response to Shah Abbas in the Iran and Persian Culture group.

Read response to Byzantium in the Medieval and Byzantine Objects group.

Please note: For some reason my paragraphing is not preserved and so the Byzantium review might be a little hard-going. If you happen to read it and would prefer to read it in a more sensible format, please leave a comment here, or on Creative Spaces.