The virtue of industry

As a former student, I’ve watched my fair share of crap day time television. Whether it’s Doctors, A Home in the Country, or any of the myriad customer advocacy shows featuring Dom Littlewood, you name it, at some point during my university years I’ve probably watched it. Mainly I watched these shows as a means of procrastination, pure and simple: trust me when I say that when you have to read a forty page article about farming in the fourteenth century, literally anything else is a more appealing prospect. At the same time, however, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find some of them, if not good, at the very least interesting, and one show which sticks out in that regard is Flog It!

Overall, the show isn’t exactly amazing: once you’ve watched three or four episodes, you’ve essentially watched them all. What was interesting about the show, however, were the segments where presenter Paul Martin visited a site of local interest. Often these would be a stately home or castle, or another equally extravagant location, but fairly often Martin would visit a museum which focused on the history of a local craft, trade or industry. I mention this because a few weeks ago an episode of Flog It! came on, and whilst watching it I began to ponder the question of what makes a good local industry museum.

Generally speaking, local trade museum’s don’t have it easy. Over the years, they have had to fend off criticism not just from academic circles, but also from people who would argue that (for the sake of argument) converting an old cotton mill into a cotton mill museum is a waste of resources, as it takes up land and space which could be used to house businesses which would help the local economy grow.

I’ll return to the first point in a minute, but my response to the second is pretty straight forward: local trade museums do help expand the economy. Not only do they bring in tourists, but they create jobs both directly and indirectly: directly in the sense that you need staff to run the building on a day to day basis; and indirectly in the sense that, at the very least, you’ll need tradesmen to carry out any maintenance or repair work, to say nothing of issues such as catering or stocking the museum shop.

Back to my main point, however: what makes a good local trade museum? The first thing to say is that a good craft museum should emphasise live demonstrations and living history. On a purely aesthetic level, these displays can provide an interesting, and in some cases therapeutic, experience, and whilst that might just be my own personal opinion, I’d argue the popularity of open restaurants show a lot of people enjoy watching craftsman in action.

More than this, however, live demonstrations are one of the best explanatory tools available to museums, especially if the craft in question uses machinery. Not only do live demonstrations show visitors how a product was made in an easy to understand fashion, they also give them an insight into the lives of the people who worked in that industry. No information panel or diagram can ever truly impress on a visitor how it must have felt to use a nineteenth century power loom: live demonstrations can. A live demonstration of a power loom allows visitors to get an idea of the sheer size of the thing, the thunderous noise they generated, and the dangers they posed to inexperienced operatives, and whilst it may be an obvious point to make, it’s one which is easily overlooked.

Secondly, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph a good local trade museum focuses on the lives of workers, and not just the mechanics of their craft. To use my example from above, obviously a cotton mill museum would need to talk about how cotton was produced e.g. what type of machinery the workers used, how it worked, and how it changed over time; and craft museums should address wider economic issues relating to the trade, in this case issues such as where the cotton went, and what it was used for.

However, this information should form the context, and not the focus, of the experience. Having set the scene, a local trade museum should go on to explore what it was like to work in that industry on a day to day basis e.g. what the working conditions were like, how long a working day was, what the workers ate; and how their job affected their wider lives. For example, how did their working environment affect their health? Did working in a cotton mill affect their social status, and if so was it a positive or negative effect? How did working in a cotton mill affect the family structure? Not only are these important questions, more to the point they are issues which visitors can directly relate to; and as such are more likely to increase a visitor’s engagement with, and enjoyment of, the museum.

Most importantly, however, the museum should frame the history of that local trade in its wider political, social and cultural context. To return to my hypothetical cotton mill museum one last time, the history of the Lancashire cotton trade ties into several important historical topics, not least the rise radical left wing movements such as Luddism and Chartism, and the agitation for Parliamentary reform; but the Cotton Famine of 1861-65 was partly the result of the U.S. Civil War. These are just a few examples, but you get my point. Even the most unassuming trades and industries tie into far larger issues, and craft museums should not be afraid to show their role in the wider historical picture; as by showing visitors to see how the history of their local area has affected, and was affected by, events of national, or even international significance, local trade museums can engage them with a range of topics and themes in a way that is relatable and accessible.

So there we go, those are my ideas on what makes for a good local trade museum: emphasise living history; focus on the lives of the workers; and frame the history of the trade in its wider historical context. Local trade museums are valuable institutions, and that’s why it’s vital they provide an engaging, informative and accessible experience: not only can they inspire people’s interest in areas of history they may not have considered before, and provide them with a truly unique historical experience, but they are perhaps the best way to demonstrate the principle that is at the heart of history: everything is connected.

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