Savage cuts are underway at Lancashire County Council and one of the results is that five museums will be closed. Of course, owing to cuts in local government budgets, museums are under the threat of closure throughout the UK, but I live in Lancashire and so the loss of these particular museums is something I feel more personally. Their closure would directly affect my local access to culture. I have visited three of them with my family; one of them several times.
The narratives supported by these three museums are for me very important. The stories they tell are about everyday people from our history and this is valuable in itself, but there is also great relevance in these stories to modern political discourse.
The Museum of Lancashire in Preston demonstrates a progressive and inclusive approach to history and archaeology. It displayed the Silverdale Hoard until earlier this year. This was particularly notable because the museum aimed to show the public how the archaeological process works. Rather than display the hoard after it had been cleaned and polished, the museum displayed the coins and artefacts still dirty with the earth in which they were buried. It may seem trivial, but the effect here is on the one hand to educate the public about the process of archaeology as well as being open and honest about the subjective nature of archaeology – artefacts are not inherently valuable and meaningful; they must be cleaned, organised into types and categories. The museum, if only symbolically, offered the public a chance to take part in the archaeological process by forming their opinions about the artefacts before they are idealised by the professionals and their authorised heritage narratives.
The value that the museum places on the viewpoints of the public is illustrated further by the time line they have showing the history of Lancashire. This time line stretches from the prehistoric past to the prospective future of Lancashire and these futures are voiced by members of the public; the time line is populated as much by the imagination and hopes of the people as it is by events that are considered to be significant through history. In this way the museum drives home the message that our heritage is constructed by all of us and that the heritage we will share in the future will be created by everyday people. It promotes the idea that everybody’s history is important as well as the notion that everybody should be able to contribute to our cultural habitus. They are embracing Bourdieu and overriding the authorised heritage discourse all in one go (Bourdieu 1977; Smith 2006).
Another museum for the chop is Queen Street Mill. The place is extraordinary insofar as it tells us about what were the ordinary lives of mill workers in Briercliffe, Burnley.
The steam engine that drives the mill is fantastic. It gleams, it steams and it curves in beautiful arcs of mechanical movement. It drips and hisses and bangs. The engineer tends it dutifully and we can even get closer to it when he opens the gates. As visitors we can walk the length of the machine, or sit on a bench and enjoy the poetry of its motion. Disappearing into the wall, you can see the spinning shaft that powers the rest of the mill.
Downstairs you will find banks of machines spinning thread and weaving textiles. The weaving shed filled with rows of machines, featured in the film “The King’s Speech”, is as deafening and frightening as it is awe-inspiring and wonderful.
Along with all these physical reminders of our industrial past, the mills contain the stories of people. Stories of sexual favours required by women workers to get replacement shuttles. Stories of teeth being rotted by the oils on the shuttles, of mouth and lung cancers caused by the licking and the breathing in of the threads and their fibres. These stories are found in the museum through the voices of the staff, some of whom worked in the mills in recent decades and whose families are linked deeply to the building’s past. The rich narrative tapestry includes more than individual stories, involving scandalous histories of mill owners refusing to obey laws to change their shuttles to self-threading versions. In short the mill owners decided to profit instead of prevent cancer and disfigurement in their employees.
Similar stories can be found at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum. On my visit a young interpreter explained with skill how the workers near the water wheel would work in freezing temperatures and how the need for money saw local people selling their urine to the mills. The narrative, as at Queen Street Mill, is one of everyday hardworking people exploited.
It is noteworthy that none of the museums up for closure offer heritage narratives of the eliticised members of society. As examples, Gawthorpe Hall, Towneley Hall, Lancaster Castle will all remain open and strongly represent the monumental heritage of the aristocracy and royalty. It could be argued that the five museums earmarked for closure go against the Authorised Heritage Discourse of the traditional, the institutional and the powerful. The stories they tell do not fit with traditional historical narratives, but they are nonetheless real.
It is here that Queen Street and Helmshore identify an important narrative which is fundamentally relevant in the contemporary political landscape. Including the notion of the Northern Powerhouse.
I find it interesting that the government’s austerity has resulted in the destruction both of stories of the everyday people of the country and of the origins of trade unionism in the face of worker oppression at the hands of private industry. Is the idea of a Northern Powerhouse palatable in such a context? It is a curious approach to powerhouses that involves the choking off of culture from the people who would fundamentally supply their power.
It is difficult to see how such a removal of identity, of destroying opportunities to connect to our own local and national heritages, can be seen as emancipatory. The removal of these museums appears to go hand in hand with the privileging of the powerful few over the many; it appears to silence the voices of the past from which we might learn lessons to challenge the likes of zero hours contracts.
What sort of agenda are we able to discern from this?
Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated from French by R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Smith, L. (2006) The Uses of Heritage, London: Routledge