Peering at Britain's Industrial Past

Rise of 'living history' museums lets visitors experience grim, grimy, vigorous era

FOR the tourist who wants to step into its past, Britain is not just the dreaming spires of Oxford or Bath's Georgian terraces. It is also wool and cotton mills, dockyards and coal pits, iron foundries, slate quarries, and needlemaking factories.

It is (or was) a country of manufacture - of ropemaking and chainmaking, shoemaking and brickmaking. It was the land of water wheels and steam engines, blast furnaces and forges.

It was (and is) Victorian-era railways with magnificent viaducts and deep tunnels, iron bridges, and canals with extraordinary locks. It is trams and ships, cars and bicycles, buses and barges, steamrollers and cranes.

Britain is so steeped in its past that it's no surprise it has extended its museum culture into multiple museological celebrations of its industrial heritage.

But only in the last 20 years has the ''industrial museum'' mushroomed all over this (in William Blake's words) ''green and pleasant land'' and become an attraction as appealing to travelers as Britain's gardens, country houses, and medieval cathedrals.

In this so-called post-industrial age, we seem fascinated with industrial history. Most of the industrial museums here are as much about the life of the working class as they are about the machinery they operated; they are museums of social history, too. You may experience going down a coal mine at several museums, and then see how the miners lived - their cottages, chapels, and schools, either accurately re-created or brought stone-by-stone to be re-erected on the museum site.

Beamish: The North of England Open Air Museum (in-Britain telephone: 01207-231811) was begun in 1970. It is set in a natural bowl of rolling wooded countryside so that once you are in it, you can see no evidence of today's world outside it. Its date is set at around 1913. By no means is it confined to working-class history: It has a ''town'' with period shops and a terrace of houses inhabited by a dentist, a lawyer, a music teacher. Nor is it exclusively urban. Even the coal mine seems part of the rural setting - as coal mines were, at first.

Beamish also includes a railway station and a farm. All the buildings are the real thing, rescued and brought to the site. There isn't a display case in sight. The structures are, however, furnished down to the smallest genuine detail.

Beamish is the granddaddy of the ''British heritage'' museums and sets a high standard. It is an extremely active place, with many interpreters wearing period dress bringing it to life and explaining their characters' lives to visitors. Some of them - the tram driver and the printer, for example - look so at-home in their costumes that it is hard to imagine them belonging to the 1990s.

Most of the heritage museums are not only concerned with re-creating the past for the entertainment (and education) of visitors, but also have campaigns to preserve and collect as much evidence as possible of a disappearing age.

In some cases the ''age'' in question is right at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in the early 18th century. And if the Industrial Age began anywhere, it began in Britain. It started here in the pre-railway age, though in many other countries it was the railway that made industry possible. In Britain, canals were the first way to transport goods to seaports or coal to the manufacturing centers.

The birthplace of the revolution is pinpointed at Ironbridge, Shropshire, where the first iron bridge of its kind ever constructed arches dramatically over the River Severn.

The bridge was cast in 1779. But much earlier than that, in 1709, Abraham Darby first smelted iron ore with coke in this beautiful valley. (You can see the furnace in which it was done.) That led to the making of the first cast-iron wheels, rails, boat, high-pressure steam railway locomotive, and steam engine here. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum (tel: 01952-432166) - actually nine sites spread over some six square miles - is a ''must visit'' for industrial-heritage fans.

One of the newest industrial museums, opened in 1988, is at Coatbridge, near Glasgow. They call it ''Scotland's noisiest museum.'' Still very much in its developing phases, though already full of fascinating machinery and re-creations of social history, Summerlee Heritage Park (tel: 02136-431261) is not set in beautiful country.

Its 25 acres were the derelict site of an ironworks set beside a canal and a railway in an industrialized area. Much of it was 20 feet deep in slag and industrial waste, though a crane manufacturer had used a factory here since the 1950s. This building, repaired and reclad, is now a large exhibition space packed with machinery and displays. There is a tinsmith's shop, a brass foundry, and a spade forge. Outdoors, you can go down a convinc ing replica of a coal mine and inside miners' cottages, each representing a different period.

What Summerlee offers is a museum experience - both indoors and out - of something that still feels recent. The museum's photographer is active in recording the factories that continue to close down in the vicinity. This is a not a museum of the distant past.

Today an odd aura seems to hover over Britain's industrial past, as if it might almost be a subject for nostalgia. The museums intended to remind visitors of this historical period inevitably temper, to some degree, the grimness and griminess that industrialization visited upon large regions. But they also do their best not to overlook, for example, the shameless way in which workers, including women and young children, were often exploited, and the way land and river were despoiled and polluted. Even the name of one museum evokes the dire pall of smoke and soot that blighted wide areas. This is The Black Country Museum at Dudley, near Birmingham (tel: 0121-557964), in that part of the English Midlands still known as the Black Country.

At Styal in Cheshire, Quarry Bank Mill (tel: 01625-527468) is a fascinating museum housed in a fully restored, working cotton mill. Visitors here are not allowed to forget how the youngest children were treated by ruthless mill owners. Yet the setting is idyllic.

Going down a coal mine and seeing first-hand how miners had to work in unbelievable conditions is the vivid experience offered not only at Beamish and Summerlee, but also at The National Coalmining Museum for England at Overton, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire (tel: 01924-848806) and the Big Pit (tel: 01495-790311) at Blaenafon, Gwent, in Wales.

Yet all of these museums seem to evoke a time which, for all its roughness, also seems attractively simpler and bolder than our own. However awful the past, many of the fine museums designed to bring it back to us turn out to be surprisingly congenial places to while away an afternoon.

Other industrial museums

Note: All phone numbers given are for dialing inside the United Kingdom. To call from the United States, dial 011-44 and omit the first 0 of the in-country number.

* Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet. Four miles from Sheffield, Yorkshire. A group of stone buildings from 18th and 19th centuries. Originally a water-powered industrial site. Shown: stages in the making of scythe blades. (Tel: 01742-367731)

* The Bath Industrial Heritage Centre. Bath. The main exhibit concerns a local business that began in 1872. Jonathan Burdett Bowler described his trade as ''Engineer, Brass Founder, Gasfitter, Lock Smith & Bell Hanger,'' and he never threw anything away - about 60,000 items! (Tel: 01225-318348)

* Calderdale Industrial Museum, Halifax, Yorkshire. The machinery for the woolen and worsted industries. This museum even generates its own steam. Halifax is also a center for toffee production. (Tel: 01422-368725)

* Forge Mill Needle Museum. Redditch, Worcestershire. Traces history of this industry from cottage to factory. (Tel: 01527-62509)

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