No Time Like the Past: A Visit to Beamish Open Air Museum
The Beamish Open Air Museum, founded by Frank Atkinson in 1970 upon taking up a position at Beamish Hall, has been a well-deserved cult in the North East of England ever since it opened, attracting 50 000 visitors over its first 21 weekends in 1971, and visited now by approximately 350 000 people a year. Atkinson is quoted on the Beamish museum website as remarking that the museum was primarily founded to “give confidence to the people of north-east England themselves,” and it has certainly been successful in this regard, using the normally exclusive environment of the museum to honour the objects contributed and, by extension, their contributors.
Atkinson, now seen as the “father of the industrial museum movement,” as his obituary in the Telegraph had it, was inspired by a sadly prescient fear of dramatic decline in the coal mining and ship building industries and the accompanying loss of local identity. (He had already begun cultural collecting in his native Yorkshire, documenting the practices and vocabulary of haymaking.) As the Beamish museum website touchingly observes, “it is thanks to Frank’s extraordinary foresight and dedication to capturing and preserving a rapidly disappearing way of life that today’s visitors can experience their heritage at Beamish.” The project had a positive as well as a negative impetus, however: visits to Scandinavian open-air folk museums such as Skansen in Stockholm had convinced Atkinson that England should have something similar (Jenny Brown, "Frank Atkinson and the Founding of Beamish," Journal of Museum Ethnography No. 22, p. 120). This was a pan-British trend at the time, as exemplified by the Welsh poet Iorwerth Peate and the St Fagans National History Museum in Wales, as well as by the Royal Anthropological Institute’s ’Scheme for the Development of a Museum of English Life and Tradition’ (Brown, 120-121).
While Atkinson took an ethnographic approach to documenting the skills and artefacts of the local area (Brown 120-121), this does not seem to have led him into any of the pitfalls of condescension or distancing too often associated with it. Indeed, one of his strokes of genius was collecting and storing everything that he was offered, motivated by a preservationist turn of mind. This means that scores of families in the region can be proud of a contribution to Beamish. While the museum is now world-famous and attracts a large number of foreign tourists (on the day when I visited, a group of Italians were wandering around in a fascinated daze), the bulk of the trippers are still definitely locals, and the sense of regional pride is palpable.
The sheer scale of the Beamish site, with its five major attractions and the crowds of enthusiastic visitors out for a good time, put me far more in mind of the legendary Festival of Britain and its magnetic appeal to Cockney trippers than the hushed and worthy atmosphere of the traditional museum. The site strives for, and mostly achieves, authenticity, avoiding any theme-park tackiness. In the 1900s town, school-children swarm around the exhibits, tumble in and out of the sweetshop and consume cake and ice cream in the park near the bandstand. Occasionally the general excitement can be a little wearing to a person of quiet temperament (“TEA! I LOVE TEA!!” shrieks one woman in a manner suggesting long-term tea deprivation), but the atmosphere alone is a very good reason to go to Beamish. Pensioners become bright-eyed and voluble at the sight of long-lost objects, and schoolchildren chirp like sparrows at this strange old world.
As the foregoing indicates, despite the undertone of loss inescapable in a museum like this, there is a lot of fun at Beamish. No feature is more delightful than the authentic period buses and trams which ferry visitors all over the vast site. Their beautifully ornate paintwork contrasts with the discomfort of actually riding in them. In fact, when one surveys the ladies’ boots and shoes on display in the Edwardian drapers’ shop, with their impossibly curved insteps, one quickly forms the impression that life was generally quite uncomfortable, and I am later assured by a cheerful lady in the chemists' that it was also short and characterised by over-reliance on narcotics in various forms, particularly morphine. (If our ancestors now seem strange to us, there may be sound scientific reasons for this). The remoteness of the Edwardian world is sometimes arresting, as captured in the adverts which boost for Colonial products and are often —to the modern eye— deeply peculiar, hinting at dysfunctional family relationships (“Burma Sauce —the only ‘sauce’ I dare give father”), or displaying extraordinary vagueness on the part of the advertisers, leading the visitor to wonder what exactly are ‘all the purposes’ for which a soap could be used.
The most fascinating exhibits in the 1900s town are the ‘private’ homes that the visitor can explore freely, from the home of a culturally-inclined single female music teacher via an authentically chaotic-looking solicitor’s establishment, the desk adrift with papers and the walls adorned with original caricatures by ‘Spy,’ to a dentist’s combined house and surgery, where personable assistants deliver ghoulish patter and terrify visitors with Edwardian dental instruments. The Freemasons’ Hall bears a striking architectural resemblance to a synagogue and features a beautiful little exhibition of regalia and memorabilia. A visit to the Edwardian village prompts the reflection that the eccentric imaginative vision that spawned Beamish —obsessive in detail and grand in scope — was itself somewhat Edwardian in flavour.
The site is so enormous and richly detailed that even after scores of visits, one would still discover something new, quite apart from the fact that Beamish is continually building new attractions as well as developing the existing ones. For example, the Georgian Pockerley Farm features a tranquil kitchen garden tucked away from the hurly-burly of the main attractions, patrolled by a friendly black cat called George. (Indeed, animal-lovers are well catered for at Beamish: docile pit ponies, aggressive geese, and enormous slumbering black pigs are just some of the creatures who punctuate the typical visit.) In the farm house, a guide and a local visitor burst into a spontaneous rendition of The Lambton Worm, and afterwards the guide reflects on the similarities between the Durham dialect and Norwegian.
The 1940s farm is small but interesting, with ITMA playing on a wireless in the main farm house. Land girls industriously garden in the front yards of a row of terraced houses, and on a small pond, swans circle slowly. Everything is appropriately sparse and governed by an ethos of make-do-and-mend. To me, however, the most absorbing and involving part of the whole museum was the 1900s pit village and colliery. This is perhaps not surprising, given that Atkinson’s first job on leaving university was in the “chemical department of a coal mine” (Brown 120). This site is complete with an authentic drift mine that was used until 1935, a steam winding engine, canaries, and an extraordinary display of miners’ safety lamps. Tour guides, some of whom worked as miners in the 1980s, show visitors around the drift mine and patiently explain the work to generations who now find it exotic and remote. The ferociously temperance Chapel, the working men’s institute and brass band practice building, and the large and impressive school are all superbly equipped and decorated. The miners’ cottages, cozy and practical, furnished with high-quality dressers and beds and a wide range of possessions, speak to the higher standard of living that miners in the early twentieth century attained for themselves and their families in exchange for, on average, ten years less of life —a fact that shocks some visitors on the tour of the cramped, wet mine shaft.
While this is the most interesting part of Beamish, it is also easily the saddest, prompting some visitors and staff to reflect on the impoverishment and decline of many former mining areas in County Durham since the 1980s. ”…Just up the road,” says one man of a now moribund local pit village, “a lovely community, that was.” Bird enclosures inside the yards of the miners’ cottages are filled with a sun-activated twittering, rustling and fluttering. “Ooh! A robin!” says a woman while looking into one, then sees that the bird is yellow, and goes off into torrents of laughter. “It’s a canary! You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? You’ve got to laugh.”
A trip to Beamish ultimately leaves the visitor thoughtful about the uses of nostalgia, which can cover diverse aspects of the past, from the unconscious imperialist orientation of commercial life in the Edwardian village to the organised labour and mutual help of the colliery village. Entertaining, moving, and never didactic, Beamish encourages visitors to think about the connections between the different economic systems represented by its various sites and to share their knowledge with one another. It provides consolation, even if only temporary, to people too often let down by the present and understandably in search of the past. While its overwhelming popularity in the North East is a great success for Beamish, it is also a bitter reproach to decades of governmental mistakes. --Isabel Taylor