The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there
L. P. Hartley — The Go-Between
Last week, I wrote in my Reflection of a week of ‘firsts since Lockdown’. The trend continued this week with my return as a volunteer to my local museum. It felt good to be back.
I’m masked, sit behind Perspex, ask visitors to check-in, and sanitise. But I can still smile with my eyes, offer a warm welcome and make them feel comfortable and at home. It is their museum. Everyone I greeted on my first ‘shift’ seemed pleased they were able to enjoy visiting again. It was also good that the younger visitors seemed enthused by what they saw.
I’ve long had an interest in History and from an early age enjoyed visiting museums. The first of those was the Hancock Museum (now Great North Museum) in Newcastle. Its focus was Natural History and Ancient Civilisations. At the time, topics of fascination for me.
Then in 1970 came the opening of the open-air Beamish Museum. A museum set up to preserve an example of everyday life in the Northeast of England from the turn of the 20th century. A museum of the people of the Northeast by the people of the Northeast. It hooked me. This was my type of museum.
It’s grown tremendously since my early visits. Now boasting trams, a pub, shops, a drift mine and coal head, a school, miner’s cottages etc. When I moved to London in 1974, those cottages were still in situ in the once mining town of Hetton-le-Hole. Before moving brick by brick to the museum a couple of years later.
One of the golden memories I have as a young boy was going to Beamish Museum with my grandfather a couple of years after its opening. My grandfather keen to see the recently installed colliery winding engine or pit head, as he called it.
My grandfather was a miner for close to 50 years, only taking a few years’ ‘sabbatical’ to fight in the trenches of the Great War. In the pit head were the artefacts of mining. There were the picks, the shovels, the tubs, the tallies, the pit ‘hoggers’. There was the winding engine that took the miners underground. I listened avidly as my grandfather walked around the various artefacts bringing them and mining in the first half of the 20th century to life.
After a few moments, I noticed others stopping to listen. Over the following twenty minutes or more, an increasing crowd grew to listen to an old miner tell them of their heritage. The distance a miner typically travelled to a seam, the heat, a miner’s minimal workwear, of seams so narrow you couldn’t turn your pick around. The dangers. In his case on one occasion a pick in the chest. After my grandfather’s impromptu talk, applause broke out. Not just for what he said but for what the man himself had done.
For a brief period that day, my grandfather brought the past to life for his audience. We’d seen photos in books, heard teachers talk of such things, even seen TV programmes. But the man in front of us had once used these tools and pieces of equipment. He knew them as everyday objects, not dusty artefacts. He brought History into the present, as a present, to those who listened.
For me, that’s History and the role of museums. To reflect how the lives of ordinary women and men formed the society in which they lived. Offering an understanding of how they did what they did. The tools they used, the places they worked, the way they travelled, relaxed, educated themselves.
George Orwell wrote, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” He is correct.
At heart, I am a Historian. One of the saddest moments of my schooldays was the requirement to give up subjects such as History, German, and Geography at the age of fourteen. I had the ambition to be a Doctor of Medicine (alas my intellect did not match that ambition) and was destined for a science cohort at what was then ‘O’ level. A world of Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Technical Drawing, Applied Maths, Pure Maths etc. Given the other five ‘core’ subjects, there just wasn’t room for anything else.
It’s very often a teacher that inspires an interest that stays with you lifelong. In my case, it was Mr Sowerby, my history teacher. It was from him I learned that Jethro Tull was an innovative agriculturist and not just a seventies pop group. How the Spinning Jenny changed the economics of the cotton trade and the consequences to the emerging British Empire. These were days when maps of the world in school rooms still had countries coloured pink to show the extent of that one-time Empire.
My final essay before giving up History was fourteen pages in length and of the French King, Louis XIV. Mr Sowerby returned it with the words, “truly a magnum opus”. I looked at the words in puzzlement. There was no mark given, just those words. Was it good or bad? The answer only found when I got home and looked up the phrase in a dictionary (there was no Google in 1970).
Who knows? If I’d made a different decision at age 14, my life might have taken a different route. I might well now be amongst the likes of Michael Wood, Simon Schama, Mary Beard, David Olusoga (another Northeast lad who ended up in the Southwest). But not I would hope, David Starkey.
Instead, I get to indulge myself in a small way by helping in the local museum. Listening to visitors and volunteers recount their own stories of the artefacts they look upon or how Chippenham has changed over the decades. And when I do, a little bit of me goes back near 50 years, and I am again a boy listening to his grandfather.
This week’s music just had to be this, didn’t it?