Art project plan for historic Dunston staithes

A major art project is planned to raise the profile of the at-risk Dunston Staithes in Gateshead

Dunston Staithes on the River Tyne
Dunston Staithes on the River Tyne

A major arts project is to focus on the urgent need to save a monument to Tyneside’s industrial past.

The venture will seek to act as a catalyst for action over the listed Dunston Staithes on Gateshead’s riverfront, which is a scheduled monument but is on English Heritage’s At Risk register.

The staithes, thought to be the biggest timber structure in Europe and one of the last survivors of a coal trade which underpinned Tyneside and the North East, has been damaged by vandals and arsonists.

The staithes were gifted to the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust in 1996 and the body has been striving to find ways of saving the structure. It has welcomed the arts project, which will be led by Newcastle University’s Professor of Contemprary Sculpture Wolfgang Weileder.

He will be working with former Newcastle University Professor of Architecture Simon Guy, who is now at Manchester University.

Their project has been backed by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

As well as raising the profile of the staithes, the project intends to stimulate debate about the concept of sustainability, including its role in rescuing heritage structures. The artwork will use recycled materials and will bring together artists, architects, social scientists, local communities and other interest groups.

Prof Weileder said: “Dunston Staithes is an absolutely spectacular monument and one of the last remaining witnesses of the industrial heritage of Tyneside and the North East. It is something of a sleeping beauty and our hope is that this project will bring life back to it.

“I strongly believe in the role art can play in how we deal with our heritage.”

Prof Weileder said the artwork would be large scale and would “interact” with the staithes.

“It will be very visible. We don’t want to use the staithes just as a canvas or plinth.”

The project may make use of the gap left in the staithes by one of two fires which have damaged the structure.

As part of the programme a symposium on sustainability, featuring international speakers, will be held in March at the Baltic arts centre in Gateshead.

It is hoped that work will start on the artwork next June.

“It will be very much dictated by the staithes. We want to reactivate and revive what is a fantastic monument,” said Prof Weileder.

“We will also explore ways it can activate the community.

“The staithes is considered to be of international historic and ecological significance.”

Martin Hulse, manager of the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust, said: “This is a fabulous development which will have an international dimension and will hopefully find a purpose for the staithes.”

Two months ago the trust launched an appeal for support and donations to save the staithes on www.sponsume.com/project/restoration-dunston-staiths .

Already 100 people have made donations.

“It is a way people can show support and we have a big partnership developing,” said Mr Hulse.

The staithes are currently mothballed and palisade fencing was erected to deter visitors. The structure was last used to load ships in 1982.

The structure was built by the North Eastern Railway and opened in 1893 to load coal on to ships so that it could be delivered to market, which was predominantly the power stations in London. At its peak in the 1930s the volume exported reached over four million tonnes per year.

It is approximately 526 metres long and made from 98 frames.

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