There is something that this country does better than just about any other place in the world. We look after our history, we look after our culture, and we make it accessible to everyone. To our visitors, to our children, to those who thought they were just looking for free shelter from the rain, and we have made that part of the fabric of who we are as nation. Apart from tea, there are few things which define being British like our conservation of our heritage and history.
The first museum I went to was the Co-Op museum in Rochdale on Toad Lane, the first Co-operative, and now when I talk about the dangers in our food supply it is with knowledge about how the diet of the working class was revolutionised by branded products, co-operatives and chip shops. Knowledge I was given at 7, by looking at scales and flour bags while a man in costume explained why people needed protection against adulterated food. I imagined eating cakes made with flour adulterated with sand or metal, and understood why this had been important. This museum was recently refitted and I can’t wait to take my daughter to the new Pioneers Museum.
I am from a generation who are used to our museums, galleries, stately homes and parks being free, or at least accessible, and since my daughter was born they have been a resource I could not imagine raising a child without. Yesterday I took a gaggle of 6 year olds to see the Barbara Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, and one of them drew the ancient artifacts that Barbara had collected, telling me he knew she must have liked them because the simple shapes were the same as her sculptures.
You can’t teach that in a school, you can’t read it in a book, you have to see the objects she owned in the context of a room of her work, and the synapses have to kick in and the understanding needs no explanation. A Frances Bacon painting I was sure I knew hit me from the other side of the room, the sight of the canvas of oil and sand, nothing like the glossy print which hid the real beauty of this work.
My friends and I used museums to meet up while we navigated babies and toddlers together, our kids would be kept occupied by the polystyrene wall and stuffed birds in the Leeds City Museum, the body zone in Eureka, or by pretending to present the weather or play with the tellytubbies in the Media Museum in Bradford. We made digital butterflies in the Winter Gardens in Sheffield, and the Beamish museum is one that holds a strange fascination for my best friend’s very clever 6 year old.
The little girl next door spent the whole of the train journey yesterday talking about Mosi, she had only been once and and yet has talked about it endlessly since. Every child I know has a story about the media museum in Bradford. A museum which has never failed to show us something new, even though I can’t even count the number of times we have visited. I worked with a kid with Aspergers who knew the history of EVERY single train in the Railway Museum in York, and even though accompanying him was often tedious (You do know it’s your job to be interested don’t you Lisa?), I cannot imagine how he would have responded to news that that institution is under threat. I can’t imagine because I can’t even write about it without the sheer fucking vandalism of threatening these places creating tears which prevent me seeing the text on the my screen.
Alongside the announcement that a Margaret Thatcher Museum and Library is to be paid for at our expense, came the news that the museums which may not be London based jewels in a tourist visible crown, but which are the fabric of maintaining our heritage are under threat.
Our Conservative Government(I think they misunderstand their own name) have set the people passionate about each of these institutions against each other, to compete for which should be saved, in a game of passing bank debt to us and selling our stuff to pay for it.
These museums do not belong to the government. They are not theirs to sell, to threaten, to close, to limit access to. They do not belong to a cabinet of people, for whom they are of no more interest than a tax break if you donate. This is our heritage, our culture and they belong to us. We fought for these places, we maintain them, we keep them alive by taking our children to offer new eyes to their collections, so they will take their children and pass down our heritage. These places have more value than the considerable financial contribution they make to the places in which they are situated, and this attack is about more than saving one or two museums in a time where we need to ‘tighten our belts’.
I spend a lot of time talking about the difference between want and need, and get frustrated with those who cannot tell that social care merits more discussion than the cuts to middle class niceties. This is not about want, this is not about need, this is about selling who we are, and telling the world what we have become.