Saturday, 5 December 2015

Save Lancashire Museums: To Lose Them is to Lose Perspective

Can you remember the first time you felt utterly in awe of something? It’s an incredible sensation. Perhaps it was when you were a child, looking up at something so much bigger? It’s size and scale may have seemed thrilling, or it may have been the exciting element of the unknown, and the inspiration to find out more? Your toes may have tingled with the excitement, your face fizzing with a smile and the want to tell others about it. For me, this awe was inspired by a visit to Whitaker Park Museum in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, looking up at the absurd structure of a ‘Penny Farthing’.  The huge front wheel and spindly structure I had never seen before and was suddenly so keen to know. It also summarises an essential point; museums inspire us not only with awe, but inspire us to learn beyond ourselves, beyond what we first thought possible. They open new worlds. Thus to close them is a great tragedy.
Whitaker Park gardens and museum

The museums of Lancashire made my childhood, as well as my sources of inspiration and information. It’s almost ironic (and horribly so) that the government cuts are seeking to make history of them instead.

Five of the county’s museums are set to close from the 1st April next year, due to proposed local authority savings of £65m over the next two years for Lancashire County Council. The five museums are Fleetwood Museum, Queen Street Mill in Burnley, Helmshore Textile Museum, the Museum of Lancashire and the Judges Lodgings Museum. These are places which share our rich heritage, history and most importantly, knowledge.  To close them is to send the message that the past is disposable and skews the notion of society. We aren’t built online, on social media. We are built in human effort, and hardship, brick and business; something museums regularly remind us through the buildings they inhabit, the exhibitions they offer, the work they do.  Museums give us a real sense of perspective and that this could be lost is an awful concept.

Realise your role as a citizen

And Museums don’t just offer a sense of perspective, but multiple perspectives too. They make you feel included. Rather than a single source, they provide information in many different formats; allowing you to see for yourself as part of a bigger past and in turn, a citizen.  In most of Lancashire’s museums you can currently enjoy free entry and the opportunity to browse as you like, in your own time.
Helmshore Textile Museum
 So in that way, a museum values your individuality too. The freedom to explore knowledge physically is a lot more valuable than you may first think – it allows you to much more actively consider yourself in relation to the artefacts on display, and to appreciate difference. For example, it is hard to have proper awareness of how confined working mill conditions were until you have seen  the intricacy of turning cotton into thread at Helmshore Textile Museum! It is only when you’ve heard the machines in motion at Queen St Mill that you can really consider the impact upon working people, day-in, day out. Museums are mind opening.

Yet  the government cuts seem determined to open peoples wallets instead, including young people. What has been an important aspect about Lancashire’s museums for a long time is that they are largely free (or at least vitally free for children); emphasizing that you cannot put a price on interactive knowledge.  They have long provided an opportunity for immersive learning, opened up to families from all income backgrounds. Of course, financially supporting museums important, but having the opportunity to choose whether you do this has been long-term important to museums’ open-minded ethos. Plus a museum would rather than take an inquisitive mind – a child ready to learn – rather than a closed collection of coins. Yet the factor of finances has led the council to raise the prospect of binging compulsory  raised visitor charges into a number of museums, as well as  uncertainty regarding their future.

Freedom for children - it matters

The Museum of Lancashire, Preston
Turning a free museum into a fee-charging one I believe can become a problem. When a museum is  no longer free, it is no longer ‘free’ by any sense of the word; as by ascribing monetary value to its experience, this can be seen as an attempt to determine the worth of its artefacts, of its experience. When museums are charged for this leads families considering the value for money rather than the actual contents. Things quickly become evaluated by investment (i.e. ‘was it worth the  cost/time/effort?’) rather than the level of interest engaged; and this taints the openness of perspective which museums originally inspire. If a museum charges already and is attracting visitors, then this is less of an issue. But to introduce charges to those which have long been free is a hard task.

Museums are not just capable of opening up perspectives either; it is important to consider the numerous roles they play in Lancashire.  Firstly, their role in conservation. It is through preserving the past that museums are providing educational opportunities for future generations, highlighting  their continued importance in society. And they don’t just teach society,  but take lessons from it too; as the  exhibitions in museums are often shaped by the attitudes of audiences and people who visit. Curators have the role not only then of preservation but presentation; assembling the past to make sense for the present and inspire the future. When you consider such processes, it shows that museums are creating positive relationships and structures at every level.

Museums make communities

Structure is an important point in itself too. Museums provide important local infrastructure as well
Mills in Helmshore
as connecting beyond the county. Take Helmshore Textile Museum, for example; an original Lancashire textile mill.  To add to the roles already listed in this piece, it plays a key community role; with the frequent school trips it facilitates just being one example. The cafe also provides a welcome meeting place for regulars, including some local elderly residents who find great comfort in the place. It certainly goes beyond what you may assume a single museum is capable of; with recent events hosted therefore including a Christmas craft fair and market.  Plus the research carried out by those working there also connects the little village of Helmshore with interest from all over the country; including enthusiasts, academics, writers and journalists.  This kind of networking is important to and is facilitated by museums across the country; they create communities of their own as well as keeping the history of others. As emphasized before, museums provide a place where multiple perspectives can come together in a receiving the gift of knowledge. To close them is to deny the present - both metaphorically and in reality! 

So now it’s time to give something back.

I think that one of the biggest things we can give to museums, is our support.  This doesn’t have to be financial if you cannot manage it – because after all, museums endorse open awareness, and it’s this openness you can use in your favour. Perhaps you could pay a visit, volunteer, donate, or even sign a petition. There is clear support for Lancashire’s museums out there and action already being taken which emphasizes how important these places there for the modern day. People can still walk through the doors and be awe-inspired. And that’s a thing worth saving. 

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