Saturday, 27 February 2016

‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’

A few weeks ago the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) had an exhibition called “Localism,” telling the story of art in and around Middlesbrough, it including New Boosbeck Industries, a project that revisits designs and furniture making from the Great Depression of the 1930s. Boosbeck Industries was part of a fantastic story called Heartbreak Hill.
The above picture was taken in 1932 in the grounds of Ormesby Hall, it can be found in the book Heartbreak Hill by Malcolm Chase and Mark Whyman and some of the people in the photograph had their stories told at MIMA. Wilf Franks was the first Englishman to attend the famous Bauhaus art school in Germany and Bernard Aylward who later became an important national figure in secondary school craft and design technology, were both involved with Boosbeck furniture making - a project Prince George was told about when he visited the region in 1933. Jasper Rootham later worked with Chamberlain and Churchill. James Roberson became director of the Saddlers Wells. David Ayerst was a writer for The Guardian. Michael Tippet who later became one of England’s major composers and a giant of opera. Also in the photograph is Frida Stewart who later made a name helping orphaned children in the Spanish Civil War, perhaps she speaks for the rest of the group when she later wrote. They certainly made a lasting impression on me; the visits to Boosbeck, the squalor of the little houses, the poverty and deprivation of the unemployed were unforgettably. And so were the people themselves, standing up to the insult of a society which had thrown them on the scrap heap with an independence of spirit and a sense of humour that amazed me. Ormesby Hall was owner by the Major James Pennyman, chairman of the Cleveland Conservative Association and his communist wife Ruth. Ruth Pennyman and David Ayers wrote the words for the Robin Hood opera. Oh God he made the cottager, he made him strong and free, but the devil made the landlord, to steal from you and me. An important figure, not in the photograph, was Rolf Gardiner He was a friend of the writer D. H. Lawrence and involved Germans in the project. A talk was also given about the unemployed Cleveland ironstone miners and their families (there was 91% unemployment at the time)
Mike Benson (centre) and I were asked to speak at MIMA about how we and the rest of the Iron Awe volunteers tried three times to produce a film about Heartbreak Hill and also produce the opera Robin Hood associated with the project. I first met Mike in 2002 we were both volunteers storytellers at an ironstone mining museum in East Cleveland, together with other volunteers we started taking our stories into the communities and some of our work can be seen below. The important museum decisions were made by just two people, they didn’t understand or support our pioneering community work so we formed Iron Awe and in September 2004 we left the museum. At the end of the year Mike was asked to leave the steelworks, and turn around Ryedale Folk Museum, a museum bankrupt of money and ideas. http://www.ryedale.gov.uk/ Case Study - Ryedale Folk Museum. In 2011 South Tyneside Council asked him to do the same at Bede’s World and a few weeks ago he became Director of the National Coal Mining Museum of England. Mike lived a few miles from me and I have worked with him as a museum volunteer for fourteen years, but the NCMME in Wakefield is a little too far for me to go.

Film making and music are a small, but important part of community heritage storytelling and Mike Benson has worked with the communities in East Cleveland and Ryedale to produce over a dozen films, a film we made about whaling included a folk opera. .
Young actors in "The Reskue" and on stage with The Moorland Whalers. I made the harpoons and talked at MIMA about how this fitted in with secondary school craft and design technology and how my school woodwork room was just five miles from Boosbeck.

The Pitmen Painters were formed in 1934 and in the same year Cleveland ironstone miners performed Tippett’s first opera Robin Hood. North East coal miners have used the Pitmen Painters to tell the world their story, why were East Cleveland ironstone miners and their descendants, denied the same?

Mike and I have attended many meetings over the last six years with people who are trying to make heritage decision making more democratic, I often use Heartbreak Hill as an example. The volunteer group Iron Awe had hundreds of people, including several schools, funding officers and the BBC supporting our attempt to produce the film Heartbreak Hill and the opera Robin Hood, yet a small group of unaccountably people given the money and power to define our heritage, including one who broke the rules, stopped people in East Cleveland from putting their heritage on the world stage. This example is from my home region, but I tell similar stories from other parts of the country.

Do you want to be involved with making decisions about your heritage, or are you content handing over money and power to a few unaccountable people and let them decide which part of your heritage is saved and which part is lost? The unaccountable few will not give up their power easily; we will only get control of our heritage when we demand it, or as I said at a meeting in York a few months ago "is it time to start a revolution?"
 

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