Museums ain’t what they used to be. When I was a lad, back in the days when the UK had only had two television channels (both black-and-white) and England were good at soccer, museums were vehicles of the establishment. They celebrated the political, military, architectural and cultural achievements of the great and the good. The lives of ordinary folk like me and my family never got a look in, but that was OK because we knew our place.
All that’s changed now. Society recognises that, regardless of our backgrounds, every one of us has been on a journey and has a story to tell. Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham reflects this more inclusive approach. It is a “living, working museum that uses its collections to connect with people from all walks of life and tells the story of everyday life in the North East of England.”
Beamish offers snapshots of North-East life in the 1820, 1900s and 1940s, scattered across a 350 acres site. Its latest project, underway at the time of our visit on our way back from Shetland in late June, is to reconstruct a 1950s town.
This is clearly a good thing. Everything that surrounds us in our lives in 2019 will be history to future generations, and it’s great to see that Beamish Museum is continuing to add to and update its exhibits. In creating its 1950s exhibit it will reflect a period that, for today’s oldest visitors – including the venerable Platypus Man – is still just within living memory.
Beamish is heavy with the atmosphere of another age. Electric trams trundle along the cobbled streets of the 1900s exhibit, past historic buildings with period fittings. Visitors can ride the trams, go into the shops, the dentist’s surgery and the solicitor’s office, and interact with friendly volunteers and staff in period costume.
There were lots of school groups on site at the time, and Beamish gave them a glimpse of an everyday life they have never experienced. The sweet shop proved to be particularly popular, with youngsters able to watch confectionery being made the traditional way, and then to buy the resulting produce.
At the bank they could learn about pounds, shilling and pence, which are part of my DNA but totally alien to today’s young people. At the Co-Op store they were able to see what shopping was like in the old days of ‘closed access’, when all the goods were kept behind the counter under the custodianship of the eagle-eyed shopkeeper.
Beamish offers a brilliant, immersive exploration of living history. Even though some of the youngsters were more interested in their mobile phones than the museum, many more were clearly fascinated by this brief insight into the lost world of their grandparents.
As for me, I had a grand day out and loved every minute of it. In the immortal words of Arnie ‘Terminator’ Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”
Reminiscence is good therapy for old fogeys, so long as we keep a sense of proportion and remember that life back then was, in most ways, much tougher than ours today.
Bring back the shilling, the sixpence and the threepenny bit, that’s what I say!