Harnessing past and future

TIME-warps are for getting stuck in. But can a moment in history have a future, can it move forward?

Beamish Museum is steeped in history but it seems certain to have a bright future under the leadership of its new director, as Alastair Gilmour discovers

TIME-warps are for getting stuck in. But can a moment in history have a future, can it move forward? Past and future are what Beamish Museum is all about and answers to these questions may be rooted in another era but are very relevant to tomorrow.

These questions are the remit of Richard Evans, the director of the multi-award-winning historical attraction. His management style is simple; he was hardly days into the role when he had walked the course, talked to customers, studied with staff, listened with intent and saw the future. And, it’s a living, breathing future representing the year 1913 as the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution in the North East.

Beamish is wholly dependent on the region’s contrasting characteristics of prosperity and deprivation, hard work and hard play, and enterprise and innovation. It’s a momentum that needs to not only be kept up but intensified – therefore Richard Evans has a big job.

“The main focus is on people coming through the forge hammer at the top of the hill,” he says. “Then you meet people who explain what they do – it’s not about information panels. Beamish is part of people’s ownership, part of their family, their town or village. It’s the colliery houses they grew up in or the ones their gran grew up in. It’s a tremendous North East archive. When you come to Beamish Museum you see real people, real fires, real bread, real chairs – and that’s very important. The future is based on these fundamentals.”

Richard has been in full charge of the 300-acre attraction since August 2008 but worked part-time for a few months whilst disengaging himself from a previous project in Yorkshire. The Grade I-listed Wentworth Castle and gardens had presented a unique restoration challenge.

“It was a really good programme and it was difficult to leave,” he says. “Wentworth is a Georgian mansion with an interesting range of 26 listed buildings. It’s a bit like running your own business and I had to make sure the hand-over was safe.

“Beamish is a personal challenge. I haven’t come from a museums background but have been managing sites for independent trusts, so it’s important for me to understand what we have here before I identify where I take it forward. You learn a lot more from watching people visiting than by sitting behind a computer.

“One of the great things about Beamish is its ownership. North East people understand this, they own it, it’s their museum and we want to give them a great time. What really interested me – and something that really matters – is it is about ordinary folk, not the great and good, but it’s important that it’s not a cliche with flat caps.”

Richard has also spent part of his career at New Lanark Conservation Trust in Southern Scotland, a ‘new’ village built in the 1790s around a cotton mill. The settlement was one of the earliest experiments in creating a civilised working environment and improved living conditions for a workforce involved in large-scale mechanised industrial processes. Child labour and corporal punishment were abolished and villagers were provided with decent homes, schools, evening classes, free healthcare and affordable food.

He says: “New Lanark was awarded world heritage site status while I was project manager there. We secured European money and Lottery funding and opened a hotel on site.

“Beamish isn’t objects in a glass case or in a field, you’ve got to see them, touch them, that’s why people like it so much. But how do you communicate that? It’s the perception, it takes a while to explain what we have. We’re drafting plans at the moment from our own staff and not from external sources, focusing on delivering activities and events, new things for people to come and see.

“We’re self-sufficient in operational terms which is unusual. Most museums can’t do that, but we’re not the cheapest place to come to. Financially it’s not an easy time for people; household budgets are stretched, so we’re looking at things like an extended membership scheme.

“Our resource centre is tremendous too, it has something like 600,000 images of the North East which people can book in and view. Places have memory, memory itself is important, it’s sanctity of place, but it’s hard to quantify in economic input and pounds spent.”

Richard has a clear and confident vision for Beamish forming in his mind which he outlines with great enthusiasm and a perceptively genuine love for his new charge. Time-warped he is not.

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