Museums ain’t what they used to be

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.

Trams and buses trundle Beamish’s cobbled streets

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. 

Traditional apothecary / chemist / pharmacy

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. 

You can ride the trams around the Beamish site

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.

Traditional grocery shop

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.” 

The tram shed

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!

Mr President, tear down this wall

Every few months I meet up with Ray and Sylvia for a coffee.  The three of us have a shared history, the agony and the ecstasy of local government in a city just a few miles from here.  To be fair, there was precious little ecstasy, but the surfeit of agony made sure our lives were never dull.  Ours is a relationship forged in adversity, on the basis that the only alternative to standing together is falling apart.

Coffee

PHOTO CREDIT: “Coffee” by AussieRalph is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I worked with Ray, on and off, over a period of around 35 years.  He was the best boss I ever had, and it’s still a pleasure to chew the fat with him and with his former PA, Sylvia. 

We’ve all retired now, but back in the day we used to laugh a lot, just to keep ourselves sane. The habit continues, and when he’s ordering his cappuccino Ray makes a point of apologising to the guy behind the counter for the disruption we’re likely to bring to his little coffee shop over the next couple of hours.  Can you get an ASBO for excessively raucous laughter?

Inevitably, whenever we meet, the first topics of conversation are the developments and disasters at our former place of work, which often features in the media for all the wrong reasons.  We observe with pleasure that some of our former colleagues have managed to get out, and shake our heads sadly at the fate of those who have no choice but to remain. 

Police Dog Van

PHOTO CREDIT: “Police Dog Van” by macneillievehicles is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The conversation segues seamlessly into a rant about politics and religion, but it’s very amicable as all three of us agree that we’re opposed to both of them.  And then it’s on to crime. Sylvia’s recently witnessed some bad stuff going down round her way, and like old fogeys the world over we reminisce fancifully about the good old days when everyone behaved themselves.

On the other hand, some things have definitely improved, and we note with satisfaction that our little town held its first Gay Pride celebration a few weeks ago.  I was away that weekend, but Sylvia explains that everyone seemed to embrace the spirit of Pride, and the town was awash with colour and jollity.

Gay Pride

PHOTO CREDIT: “Gay Pride” by Dave Pitt is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And finally, inevitably, the talk turns to holidays.  Places we’ve visited, places we’re planning to visit, places we’d love to visit if only our Lottery numbers come up.  And this is when Ray drops his bombshell: he’s been elected President!

Ray and his missus have a holiday home on Minorca.  It’s part of a housing complex that’s run as a co-operative, where decisions are made democratically at an AGM by the owners of the individual properties that make up the development. 

However, World War 3 has been threatening to erupt for several months over the thorny issue of boundaries.  The rules of the development forbid the erection of walls and fences in shared areas, but this hasn’t prevented two individuals enclosing “their” gardens, in one case with a fence and the other with a brick wall of which Hadrian himself would have been proud. 

The sides have taken entrenched positions, and acrimony rules.  Two elected Presidents of the co-operative have quit over the last few months, everyone’s talking but no-one’s listening.  Passions are running high, and the presence of lawyers does little to help. 

IMGP9194

PHOTO CREDIT: “IMGP9194” by Ale_l7 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A peacemaker is desperately needed, so Ray magnanimously decides to fly out to Minorca to do his bit at the AGM.  After all, he’s come up through the school of hard knocks – English local government – so he knows a thing or two about gently banging heads together and tactfully reconciling the irreconcilable.

The AGM is every bit a gruesome as he’d feared.  Insults fly and there is no meeting of minds. The builder of the brick wall maintains that he had special permission to build it.  And, he argues, it isn’t really a wall anyway! 

That’s it, Ray’s heard enough.  He stands and starts to speak, explaining in faltering Spanish that in England we have a saying: if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s almost certainly a duck.  Against all reason and probability he gets a round of applause from the assembled AGM, most of whom are Spaniards who have never heard anything like this before.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck … it’s almost certainly a duck

The meeting drags on, and Ray intervenes several times more.  The AGM is mesmerised: the Brits may have pinched Gibraltar from under their noses and screwed up over Brexit, but they still know a thing or two about diplomacy.  So, when the time comes, they elect him as the new President of the co-operative, despite his best endeavours to kick the idea into touch.

And there we have it: my former boss is a President.  But the Minorcan re-imagining of Hadrian’s Wall is still standing, and it’s Ray’s job over the next year to have it removed without any of the parties getting killed or maimed. 

I take great pleasure in the fact that my pal President Ray, in stark contrast to a President on the other side of the pond, is to dedicate his life to taking a wall down rather than putting one up.  It’s a rotten job, but someone’s got to do it. 

The Berlin Wall

PHOTO CREDIT: “The Berlin Wall” by Dave Hamster is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Quoting the immortal words of a speech made in Berlin more than 30 years ago, a speech addressed to Mikhail Gorbachev by none other than Ronald Reagan – another American President who talked a lot of walls – I say only this to my good friend Ray: “Mr President, tear down this wall.”