Mining museums exploit a rich seam of nostalgia

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'I ALWAYS had an inferiority complex because I didn't work at the coal face,' said John Gair, standing next to the exhibition dummy that resembled his father.

'I was left feeling that I hadn't really done my bit. But then I helped to establish this place and I felt better. I could have said to my father: 'Dad, now I've done my bit'.'

Mr Gair's 'bit' was to be one of the founding employees of a heritage centre, a mining museum in a real mine in the Rhondda Valley. There were plenty of mines to choose from. In the 1920s, the Rhondda had 60 exporting coal all over the world; now there are none. Instead, South Wales and many parts of industrial Britain have museums and heritage preservation centres run by people dedicated to reminding Britain what it was like when we used to make things. Last year, 37 million people visited industrial museums in the UK, a figure representing 11 per cent of all tourist excursions. The British Tourist Authority is preparing a promotion for 1993 entitled Experience the Making of Britain.

The number of industrial heritage attractions being invited to take part has already topped 800. Tourists, hungry for nostalgia or anxious that their children should see heavy machinery at work, that they should experience the sights and smells of a pit, the weave of hemp or cotton, the distant heat of molten steel, the smell of oil and smoke, have found a kind of gritty Disneyland on their doorstep.

More than half a million visitors went to the Beamish open-air museum in Stanley, Co Durham, to see a mining village and turn-of- the-century industries; 316,000 went to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum on the river Severn, the last place where wrought iron is still made from iron instead of steel; 275,000 went to the Black Country Museum in Dudley; and 125,000 to the Steel Making Heritage Centre in East Carlton in the East Midlands.

Then there was the Steam Cotton Weaving Mill near Burnley, the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, and Geevor Tin Mine near Land's End. Here, the nostalgic and the curious were shown how Britain used weave cotton, make ropes and mine tin.

'In some marginal industries, there is more and more of a trend away from producing as much as you can as competitively as you can, and more of a move towards inviting people in to see the process,' John Robinson, a former administrator of the Prism Fund for the preservation of industry and scientific material, said.

'That way, it is possible to qualify for certain subsidies or EC grants. Unfortunately, that is an incentive to deliberately run down and relaunch as a tourist attraction. When that happens, we can save machinery and buildings, but you can't save the skills of the people involved.'

In Wales, even with the survival of Tower Colliery in Mid Glamorgan, and the unlikely reprieve of Betwys Colliery in Dyfed and Taff Merthyr in Mid Glamorgan, there would be more pit museums than working pits.

At the Rhondda Heritage Park between Pontypridd and Porth, John Gair, 58, may suffer his unwarranted feelings of inferiority because some of his fellow guides are former miners. He worked at the Lewis Merthyr Colliery, on which the museum is built, only briefly before moving into the RAF and then a factory job.

Each day, he and his colleagues take visitors through the winding house, where a 90-ton winding drum lowered men to the coal face 1,500ft below. On their way to the pit head they pass through the lamp room, where the mock figure reminds Mr Gair of his father, who worked for 30 years in the lamp room of a nearby colliery.

Projectors, loudspeakers and exhibition dummies do what they can to evoke the danger, misery and comradeship of the times, yet the feeling is of sadness for a greatness lost.

Perhaps fittingly, the last recording to boom out at tourists is the voice of Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, describing the role of the pit wife in the tremendous achievements of a tiny community.

'Rhondda was never perfect,' he says, 'but it made its mark. It marked its people indelibly.'