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HMS Excellence

Miles Travelled = 851
Museums Visited = 16
Mood = appreciation

They’re making a movie today at the Museum of Nottingham Life. When I say ‘they’ I don’t mean the museum staff. MuBu is all about interpreting collections in new ways. And that means sometimes bringing in new people.

The John Player Collection has already had that treatment once. Ex-employees of the company came back to see material from the collection and talk about their experiences of life, work, play and even love among the cigarettes and bales of tobacco. From their words a film emerged, which I had the pleasure of watching a couple of months ago at its premier in Nottingham Castle Museum.

It presented a rosy view.

I’m curious to discover what approach the next group of film makers will take. The group I’m going to meet today are young people from a variety of backgrounds in Nottingham. Some of them are old enough to drink in pubs, but not old enough to remember how pubs used to be before the smoking ban.

Perhaps this group will be distant enough to see cigarette advertising through the softening mist of antiquity. Things that are distasteful memories to me might for them be as comfortably remote as a history lesson.

Ah – but there’s me being prejudiced again. Memories of my own physical discomfort trying to breathe when the air was so full of second-hand smoke that I could barely read the health warning on a fag advert on the pub’s opposite wall. I’m the wrong person to write about this subject. But if I’m prejudiced against, surely the ex-employees are just as prejudiced in the opposite direction.

What of the young volunteers? Over the last few weeks they have been working with the writer Andy Barrett to produce a film script. And tonight the cameras begin to roll.

I meet them in a room with a table covered in props and mugs of tea. False beards. A hat from a naval uniform. Lettering spelling out ‘HMS Excellent’. Everyone is busy. I take a script from the top of the pile and start leafing through it.

John Player HMS Excellence

A montage of phrases and advertising images jump from the page. Positive, negative and neutral all mixed together. The John Player sailor gazes out to sea. A voice says: “Oh yes, it’s a good day when men come home from victory.” A romantic couple light cigarettes on a beach of golden sand. A voice says: “Doesn’t she look lovely in the sea air?”

John Player Glamourous Advert

I’m trying to understand the flow of the script when Andy arrives, together with film maker Adrian Towell. Andy explains the scenes we’re about to shoot. He sets people to work on different tasks and we’re off to the library where cameras and lights are already set up.

I tag along, trying not to get in the way.

One by one the volunteers step in front of the camera to deliver their lines. They’re not used to acting, but each of them gets it in the end and speech by speech we move though the scene.

There is little more enjoyable then witnessing someone doing a job really well. I get that feeling now, watching Andy as he helps the volunteers, organizing them, directing them, bringing out a performance from each. He was also the one who brought the script together. But the words being spoken came from the young people themselves.

The more I listen and read, the more impressed I become. There is a freedom in the writing that I could not have brought to this subject. Nor, it seems to me, could the ex-employees. The script does not tell its audience what to think. It is not worried about enjoying the glamour and the political incorrectness of the 1970s adverts. Nor does it hold back from speaking of lung cancer.

As a result it is fresh, alive and engaging.

All the way through this journey I have learned about projects where groups of volunteers are helping to re-interpret old collections. But today – seeing it happen – I am more convinced than ever of the value of this approach.

 

Picking Coal in the 1912 Miner’s Strike

Miles Travelled = 791
Museums Visited = 16
Mood = humility

A short podcast in which David Amos examines my family photograph from the 1912 miner’s strike and explains some of the background. Click on the link below to listen:

1912 Miner’s Strike

 

Mining and the threads that tie us to history

Miles Travelled = 791
Museums Visited = 16
Mood = humility

When the BBC created a TV series about tracing our ancestors, they wisely called it “Who do you think you are?” and not “Who do you think they were?” A good choice, it seems to me. For when we look back to the past, what we are really searching for is an understanding of ourselves.

We each have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents. The number of story threads doubles with each additional generation. When I visited Stricklandgate House a couple of months ago, I was looking in on the home of my great, great, great, great grandparents. We each have sixty-four direct ancestors at that level in our family trees.

I don’t know much about all sixty-four. But there are a couple of branches in the tree that I have been learning about. They form part of my understanding of who I am. This may be illogical – given the numbers of other branches. All I can say is, the connection with these past lives feels meaningful and contributes to my sense of self. My impression is, other people react in a similar way when they research their ancestry. And perhaps this is why people go so far out of their way to share the little bit of history they feel connected to. To remember those past lives is to say: “This is who I am.”

So here I am in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, learning about the lives of coal miners in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries. I have brought two photographs with me. The first is a black and white, high contrast image of a large crowd of working class people gathered outdoors. There are no clear landmarks to identify the place, but information passed down in the family suggests the picture was taken at Gedling Colliery early in the last century.

Gedling Memorial

My great grandfather stands on the left at the front of the crowd, holding the handles of an empty barrow. A rope loop of rope runs from the handles around his shoulders and back. He was evidently expecting to carry a heavy load. My great grandmother is towards the right of the group. Two of their daughters are also present. The photograph was taken during a strike, and shows the community turning out to pick pieces of coal from the waste tip.

I explain what I know of the picture to David Amos, the MuBu mining scholar. He tells me it must have been the 1912 Minimum Wage Strike.

Next I show him an accident report – a few lines of sparse text describing a mine explosion in which my great grandfather was badly injured. He spent three months in the Leicester Royal Infirmary after that. The report speaks of a geological fault. They might not have expected gas at that level of the mine, David explains. But it could have seeped from below along the fault line.

The other photograph I have brought with me is a modern one. It shows a memorial built in the shape of a miner’s safety lamp. Around the base of the memorial are the names of  the 128 miners who lost their lives at Gedling. Two of the names belong to my great grandfather’s brothers.

128 names: the miners who died at Gedling

In touring the heritage sites at Eastwood, I have seen more evidence of the harsh conditions the miners and their families had to endure. The story that hit me hardest was that of a woman who had a husband and several sons working different shifts down the pit. As well as the ordinary household cleaning and washing, she had to labour through the 24 hours of each day, preparing food or hot water for miners going to work or coming home, exhausted. The most she could expect by way of rest herself was a cat-nap in the arm chair. She never slept in the bed.

 

A pub lunch in Eastwood

Miles Travelled = 791
Museums Visited = 16
Mood = happy

Having completed a hugely enjoyable tour of heritage sites around Eastwood, in Nottinghamshire, we headed off for a pub lunch. Before the food arrived I had a brief chance to ask David Amos a couple of questions about mining and about the Lawrence family. 

This is what he said:

David Amos – Podcast 1

David Amos - MuBu mining scholar

 

of Mining and Poetry

Miles Travelled = 791
Museums Visited = 16
Mood = self-conscious

When I tell you that I’m walking around a museum situated in the house of a north Nottinghamshire miner, and that I’m being escorted by David Amos, the MuBu mining scholar, you might think that today’s visit has a single, straightforward focus. But the museum tells the story of the miner’s son, a frail lad who never worked down the pit and didn’t fit the pattern expected of a boy in a small mining town.

His name was D H Lawrence.

We start in the D H Lawrence Birthplace Museum in Eastwood. Our next stop will be Breach House, another Lawrence family home. After that we will visit a mining/Lawrence exhibition at the Durban House Heritage Centre. And finally we’ll have a chance to see the mine headgear at the site where Lawrence senior worked.

D H Lawrence bedroom Eastwood

It seems that, in the heritage industry, D H Lawrence and the coal mining town where he grew up have found an accommodation they never enjoyed in life. In Lawrence’s own words: “If I think of my childhood, it is always as if there was a sort of inner darkness, like the gloss of coal, in which we moved and had our real being.”

Perhaps it was the very discomfort of not fitting in as a child that drove him to write so creatively and bravely through the years of his short life. After all, according to Earnest Hemingway, the best early training for a writer is an unhappy childhood.

Strangely, I find myself connected to both aspects of today’s tour: writing and mining.  

You might expect that as a novelist, I’d be particularly interested in Lawrence’s long fiction. But it is his poems that really attract me. My two favourites are  “Snake” and “Red Geranium and Godly Mignonette”. These poems are beautiful on the page, but their full beauty is revealed only when they are spoken out loud. I have brought copies of each in my bag and I want to hear them spoken in Lawrence’s childhood home.  I want to voice them so that I can feel the words forming in my mouth.

But I am not on my own. David is with me. Also Alex and Sam, the MuBu project coordinators. And the museum tour guide. I’m still trying to summon the courage to ask if they wouldn’t mind pausing for a moment, when two elderly ladies join our the party. How self-important it would now seem if I were to make my request.

Ah-hem, could I have your attention please?”

In the poem “Snake” Lawrence speaks of his reaction on seeing the venomous reptile drinking at a water trough in Sicily. A real man would have killed it, he thought.

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him? Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

Perhaps a real writer would stop the tour and announce that he was going to recite, whether other people liked it or not. But when the moment comes,  I find I can’t do it. The text stays in my bag and the poems remain, for the time being, unvoiced.

Miner's lamp, flask and snap tin

And so to the other thread of our tour – the lives, and in some cases the deaths, of those who were brave enough to work hacking coal out from deep under the surface of the earth.  

That will be the subject of the next blog.

But for now, and regretfully, because I was too timid to read it out in Lawrence’s house, please forgive me for including below my very poor reading of Red Geranium and Godly Mignonette.

Red Geranium

 

Newark Town Hall

Miles Travelled = 723
Museums Visited = 13
Mood = only a little bit fidgety

Confession time: I am not a good student. My mind jumps around too much to allow me to sit still through a lecture. I always try to get a chair at the back of the room, because I know I will end up drawing pictures and fidgeting and I don’t want to distract the speaker.

Borderline attention deficit disorder, I believe they’d call it – though I have never thought of it as a disorder myself. It’s just the way I am.

So when I tell you that I have just attended a day-long seminar in Newark’s historic Town Hall, listening to presentations on MuBu projects from around the region, you might think I will have come away with a notebook full of doodles and a head full of frustrations.

But this is not the case.

OK –there were some doodles. I’ll admit that. And I did at one point write a short poem cursing the inventors of PowerPoint. But there was also enough interesting content to keep me focussed on the subject in hand. And there were engaging patterns – similarities between the things different speakers mentioned.

For example, in projects working with young people:

  • Always have plenty of food available.
  • It is easier to work with people who are already an established group – rather than having to recruit them individually and bring them together yourself.
  • Once you have gathered your group, it can take a large amount of input and energy to get things going. Numbers of participants may dwindle.
  • But for those young people who you do engage and stick the course, the input you give can have a hugely positive effect. In some cases it can be life-changing.

It was particularly enjoyable to see presentations from projects I have visited at Foxton Locks, Sudbury Hall and the Museum of Nottingham Life. And Special mention must be made to the films made by young people, such as the one from the Creswell Crags project.

Newark Town Hall

And if at any moment my mind did seek out distraction, all I had to do was look up at the ceiling or walls. The meeting room in Newark Town Hall is extraordinarily ornate. It is a historic building (coincidentally constructed in 1776) which now houses a museum and art gallery.

 

Lincoln, Food and Museums (podcast)

Miles Travelled = 649
Museums Visited = 12
Mood = Tired knees

There is a convenient bench half way down Steep Hill in Lincoln. A few days ago I was sitting on it next to Cynthia Brown, the MuBu food scholar. Partly this was to rest our knees (it really is a steep hill) and partly to give us a few moments to chat about her project and the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, which we had just visited.

If you would like to hear our conversation, please click the link to the short podcast below:

Lincoln Podcast

MuBu Food Scholar atthe Museum of Lincolnshire Life

 

Museums of Lincoln

Miles Travelled = 649
Museums Visited = 12
Mood = unable to choose

I walk from the museum of Lincolnshire Life in the company of MuBu food scholar Cynthia Brown. We stop at the Cathedral to stare upwards in wonder. It is an expression of medieval devotion fashioned into stone. The architects and artisans who made it are still sharing their vision of heaven six hundred years on.

Though this is definitely a heritage location, to include it in my count of museums would seem wrong. It is still a place of worship – though the imposition of an entrance fee substantially reduces the aura of sanctity.

There is history at every turn in the small city of Lincoln. Half way down a road appropriately called ‘Steep Hill’ we come to one of the earliest continually occupied town houses in England. Known as the ‘Jew’s House’, it was associated with what was once a thriving Jewish community in the city. However in a 13th Century wave of anti-Semitism, the Jews were driven out and the house was seized.

A few yards around the hill, I come to Lincoln’s newest museum – The Collection.

Though this is off the main track of my journey, as no MuBu projects are based here, the contrast between such a new, purpose-built structure and the Museum of Lincolnshire Life is so stunning, I feel I have to write about it.

The Collection contains a large, open-plan exhibition which takes the visitor on an archaeological journey from the Stone Age forwards, encompassing successive waves of invasion and population. The whole thing forms a single, clean narrative. The interpretation boards are clear and unified, each forming part of a continuous story.

The Collection, Lincoln

By contrast, in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life there were few interpretation boards. Going around it I found myself asking questions such as ‘What was that for?’ and ‘When did they make that?’ And unless Cynthia happened to know the answer, I was left to walk on none the wiser. It sometimes felt like a collection united only by the fact that all the objects happened to have been donated to the museum.

If you were to stop reading here, you might go away feeling that I loved The Collection and disliked the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. But this is not true. I can’t choose one above the other. I loved each in a different way.

Scarecrow. Museum of Lincolnshire Life

The two museums are like two different writing styles. One takes your hand and leads you into the story, leaving nothing ambiguous or unknown. The other presents images and events and invites the reader to ask questions and take the step of entering the world of the imagination. Each has its place.

One conforms to a modern style of museum design. The other looks more like the way museums used to be. But it is interesting to note that when I asked some of the local people which they preferred, the old style won their loyalty over the new.

 

Of food and Napoleon

Miles Travelled = 649
Museums Visited = 11
Mood = Hungry

I’ve been travelling around heritage locations in the East Midlands for a few months now and to be honest the only places I’ve been really aware of food were the various museum cafes which have sustained me on the journey – a jacket potato, a cup of tea and perhaps a bar of chocolate.

But that must change today. I’m travelling to Lincoln in the company of Cynthia Brown, the MuBu food scholar. She has been visiting the museums of the region in search of food-related objects, displays and locations. 

On the journey east towards Lincoln we chat about our experiences of MuBu. “Have you had any difficulties on the way?” I ask. “The subject is very large,” she says. “It’s been hard to know which aspect to concentrate on.”

I’m still puzzling over this when we catch sight of the towers of Lincoln Cathedral in the distance. Quite how such a building was constructed in the 13th Century is beyond my comprehension. They say it was the tallest building in the world for an astounding 249 years – and all put together with ropes, pulleys and sweat. Surely there must have been some heavy-duty calorific food around to sustain such a (literally) monumental effort. Would that have been beer and bread? I have no idea.

The main focus of our visit is the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. On arrival we are informed that the cafe is temporarily closed, which seems to me like a bad omen, given the topic of our interest.

The museum is arranged as a series of displays, each reflecting a different room in a house or workplace from the past. After the first display, a child’s bedroom, we quickly arrive at a kitchen and I get my first look at the subject of Cynthia’s travels.

Bread display at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life

Everything here is food-related. From a row of meat mincing machines to knife sharpeners, mixing bowls, scales and loaves of bread.  Most of the objects probably date from 90 to 150 years ago, except the bread which, although looking at it is making me hungry, I suspect may be made of plastic.

As we move on, I’m thinking that we will probably have exhausted the subject of food by now. But next is the dining room, and I concede that this display too is food related. In the ironmongery a few yards further on, I notice animal traps and knife sharpeners, both of which are food-related. At the pharmacy the relationship between food, medicine and health comes up. And beyond that we arrive at displays relating to Lincolnshire’s agricultural past, all of which revolves around food production.

The further I go, the more I understand the magnitude of Cynthia’s problem. Our ancestors, like us, couldn’t live without food. Thus any object or place associated with human activity of the past can not have been far from sustenance.

Cynthia photographing the potato digging machine

By the time we arrive in a hall of large vehicles and machinery, I’m thinking that it might be an easier job to find the artefacts in the museum NOT connected to food. I spend a few moments trying to figure out how a large potato digging machine might have worked, then meander on to the single largest object in the room – a First World War tank.

It is a jaw-droppingly impressive sight.

All thoughts of food are (temporarily) forgotten.

WW1 Tank at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life

It is only afterwards that I start to ask myself how long the drivers and gunners had to sit inside that great metal hulk, and where they stored their food and water. Who was it who said ‘An army marches on its stomach’?

 

Living History

Miles Travelled = 539
Museums Visited = 10
Mood = Impressed

“Living history” is a phrase usually used to describe attempts to bring the past to life through re-enactment.  The re-enactment of battles.  The re-enactment of past industries and lifestyles. The sort of thing you might find at Warwick Castle, the Black Country Museum or the Ironbridge Gorge Museum.

But there is a deeper kind of living history, which I have recently had the pleasure of witnessing in two very different heritage sites.

The first of these is Stricklandgate House in Kendal, far away from the East Midlands. It is a grand property in the middle of the town. Built in 1776 by Joseph Maude, local coal merchant turned banker, it was used by the “Kendal Literary & Science Society” from 1854. William Wordsworth was a prominent member of the society and it seems a frequent visitor. Since that time it has been used as a museum, a library, local council offices and finally the home of the Stricklandgate Trust. Whilst it remains a public space with an extensive historical exhibition, Stricklandgate House now also serves as the home of a host of voluntary organizations. Everything from a family drop-in centre to the local Dyslexia Association.

Stricklandgate House, Kendal

What impressed me most about the building is the way its historical character has been preserved and displayed, whilst also serving the community in new and valuable ways. This, it seems to me, is living history in the truest sense.

You may ask why I bothered to travel so far outside the East Midlands to visit a heritage site which is not part of MuBu. The reason is that this bit of history is one to which I feel a personal connection so, when Stricklandgate House was being reopened after refurbishment, I took the change to visit. The original owner of the house, Joseph Maude, was my great, great, great, great grandfather.

Stricklandgate House, Kendal

The second example of living history is much closer to home. From its opening in 1814 to the present day, Foxton Locks has remained in use, doing exactly what it was originally designed for – enabling narrowboats to navigate between the low ground to the north and the higher ground of the Leicester Summit to the south.

It could have been closed. That almost happened after the industrial uses of the canals had ended and before canal tourism had started to grow towards its present level. Some of the canals were going to be filled in, others reduced to un-navigable drainage channels.

But there is a basic human impulse – almost universal, it seems – that attaches people to the history they consider their own. That impulse had me take the long drive to Kendal to visit the house of my great, great, great, great grandfather. The same impulse motivated groups of people up and down the country to speak out against the closure of the canals.

And so the Grand Union Canal and Foxton Locks were saved.

Gradually the canals found a new life in tourism. The hundreds of thousands who visit Foxton Locks every year are a testament to the success of that new industry. The tourists who visit in such massive numbers do not come to see a re-enactment of history. They come to see the locks being used for the very purpose for which they were originally designed, shifting boats up and down the hill. It is not just a tourist destination, but a vital link in a working transport system.

That is living history.

 
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