Logo: TAE logo

A Case Study in Heritage Management

Image: Heritage Case Study photo

Somebody in a class the other day started a discussion about heritage and how important it was in tourism. I asked if anyone had heard of Robert Hewison’s book “The Heritage Industry”. Not one of them had. Perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising as they were only toddlers when the work appeared in 1987, and it faded from sight after a huge amount of initial publicity in which every columnist and commentator seemed to jump onto a journalistic bandwagon, usually siding with Hewison. I suggested to the students that they should read the book, and also look for Patrick Wright’s “On Living in an Old Country”, published two years earlier, and to my mind a much better book, and David Lowenthal’s “The Past is a Foreign Country”, also from 1985, and a work of great scope. It reminded me of some curiosities about the discussions in the mid-nineteen eighties about ‘heritage’, especially since I recently acquired a copy of Frank Atkinson’s autobiography “The Man Who Made Beamish”.

At the time Hewison’s book appeared I was Public Relations and Marketing Officer for the Calderdale Inheritance Project in West Yorkshire, some notes about which appear on another page in this web site. It was a regeneration project which achieved a great deal, alongside other, longer established work by local Civic Trusts, an organisation called Pennine Heritage, and, indeed, other departments of Calderdale Council, which led the Inheritance Project, and for which I had been Tourism Officer from 1978. Many, many people from voluntary bodies, the Council and what was up to 1986 West Yorkshire County Council, plus some commercial companies, had since the late 1960s been slowly building up a wide range of initiatives to re-use derelict mills, shops and houses, to clean up eyesores in open spaces long abandoned, and to remove some of the highly inappropriate ‘redevelopments’ which had butchered elements in a remarkable industrial landscape. I had quickly come to the conclusion, along with others, I’m sure, that the Calder Valley was an area above most others where the changing effects of the industrial system on human communities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could be seen.

Image: Halifax Piece Hall

Halifax Piece Hall:
shops along an 18th
century gallery,
and a detail of one
of the three gates

Calderdale Council was not entirely sure about heritage-based regeneration, which we were about, even though it had taken up the challenge posed by the national Civic Trust in the early 1980s to lead a broad partnership of local interests along these lines. The Halifax Civic Trust, Calder Civic Trust, and above all Pennine Heritage, had led the way. Halifax Borough Council, which was merged with other local authorities in the valley in 1974 to form Calderdale Council, had, by the slimmest margins – a casting vote by a chairman – saved the unique Halifax Piece Hall, which might have been demolished as part of a proposed redevelopment scheme such as had disfigured so many other city and town centres. The Piece Hall was refurbished as a shops, open air market, events arena, art gallery and tourist information centre, and opened as such in 1976. Later, an enterprising Museums Department added a museum to the pre-industrial period, and then another in an adjacent former engineering works to local manufacturing, especially carpets, wire-making, engineering and confectionery such as the Quality Street assortments of John Mackintosh.

The work won prizes from both the Civic Trust and The Times/RIBA for outstanding work. In Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, Ripponden and other valley towns local initiatives large and small were achieving influential results. When the Crossley Carpet Mills at Dean Clough, in Halifax, closed in 1982, entrepreneurs Ernest Hall and Jonathan Silver bought them and began the creation of a vigorously expanding business park which also contained arts centres and theatre groups.

Image: Florence Waite and the Crossley Excursion, 1935

Florence Waite, a retired
weaver, recalling a social
club outing in 1935 to
Edinburgh, revelled in her
home town of Halifax now
becoming a similar tourist
attraction. She was proud
that people came to see
her town [see "A Social
Club Outing By Train, 1935"
in the list to the left]

Local people had been tourists for years, travelling to enjoy London, Edinburgh, the Isle of Man, coastal resorts and distant countryside, but they had never thought that their own towns and Moorlands ranked in any way alongside those places. But so it was, and more and more visitors were coming to admire and enjoy the Calder Valley. One of my own projects had been to record, with a video crew from Leeds Metropolitan University, the memories of a 91-year old former weaver at Crossleys, Mrs Florence Waite, who was just such a person who had travelled away on holidays but never rated her own town as special in that way. She was thrilled to see the visitors looking at her town and seeing in its new industrial museum what was effectively her own story being told.


In the middle of this, around the early weeks of 1987, I sat in Halifax Town Hall as an officer attending a committee meeting discussing possible further support for heritage-based regeneration. Immediately in front of me sat a Labour Councillor who I will refer to as Councillor S. He, and other Labour members, were not convinced about these activities. They wanted mills replaced by new manufactories, old industry by new industry. Creating what another Labour councillor called a “Cotswold Tea-Shop Economy” in this Yorkshire textiles community was anathema. I could agree, as could everyone else, that factories would have been first choice, but it was unlikely to happen in a district of narrow roads and corners, high, cramped buildings and a lack of European grant aid as there was at the time. I should add that it so happened that one side of my own family, years back, had worked in Calder Valley mills as weavers, and others as boat people on the canal network. Interestingly, the 'Tea-Shop Economy' Councillor ran, I believe, an antiques shop, which of course has always been one way of exploiting anyone's heritage.

Councillor S rose to speak. I can quote, from memory, his words. “There’s this book coming out which proves what we’ve been saying”, he announced. The ‘we’ was his party, the book was Hewison’s “Heritage Industry”. Of course he hadn’t read it, only advance publicity, and Hewison’s polemic didn’t ‘prove’ anything, only argue a one sided case. As it happens, Councillor S’s view was defeated that night on whatever the motion was, but later it would prevail as he and other Labour members diluted the effectiveness of the Inheritance Project in many ways. The full detail of how that happened is another story, some of which is told on a different page of this web site. The Inheritance Project did achieve huge and lasting successes, thanks to a blend of inspired and creative public relations and marketing by a whole team drawn from local government and the business world.

When “The Heritage Industry” appeared later that year it had a great impact on the media. Its out and out style of attack meant it was very quotable. It wasn’t very long, and it struck chords with many who saw the growth of museums and conservation projects as a wing of the Thatcherite destruction of many basic industries in the 1980s. There were plenty of cheap and nasty schemes being proposed for new heritage centres and museum, often driven by a growing band of consultants who latched on to them to make money and carve out a reputation. Later there would be other schemes supported by money from some public body or governmental agency or other, which would fall flat on their faces after spending millions in badly-thought-out projects. Near to Calderdale would be the Earth Centre in Rotherham, Transperience in Bradford, the National Centre for Popular Museum in Sheffield. But to label everything from national museums to local voluntary society efforts as parts of a ‘heritage industry’ was woefully cheap. The book seemed to me like something aimed at maximum publicity without the depth and solidity of either Wright’s or Lowenthal’s work.

What I found curious was a film presented by Robert Hewison and produced by Roger Burgess in the early 1980s. It was called “The Man Who Made Beamish” and was about the work of Frank Atkinson, its Director during the years of its foundation. Being interested in museums I taped it. Atkinson told Hewison that in 1952 he had toured Scandinavia in order to see what was happening in museums there. In Lillehammer, Norway, he stood on a little wooden bridge in the town’s open air museum one early evening and decided that there ought to be such a museum in England. This romantic little cameo is repeated in Atkinson’s autobiography, which used the same title as that of the film.

Image: Shibden Hall, Halifax

Shibden Hall, Halifax,
is still the home of
the small West Yorkshire
Folk Museum

What is curious is that in those years Frank Atkinson was Director of Halifax Museums. Two years before his vision in Lillehammer, the then Director of Halifax Museums was Robert Patterson. He published that year an article in the Bradford Textile Society Journal which set out the case for a West Yorkshire Folk Museum at Shibden Hall. It had carefully drawn proposals for displays in out buildings which included those for a wood turner, a fulling mill, a potter, a stone mason, and a weaver’s cottage. Mr Patterson’s paper traced the origins of folk museums to Scandinavia, but also pointed to a failed idea for one in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in 1912. He referred also to existing British examples in the Isle of Man, Scotland, and especially, Wales. He goes on to argue the case for using Shibden Hall because of its particular history and that of Halifax in general. The Editor’s introduction to a reprint of the article says “and what better place for [a folk museum] than Shibden Hall, in the ancient wool town of Halifax?”.

Frank Atkinson had control of Shibden Hall when he became Director of Halifax Museums in 1952 and was responsible for turning the idea for a folk museum into reality. But he wasn’t the man who had the vision – that was Robert Patterson, working within a movement started already. I have looked through Atkinson’s autobiography, but can find no mention of Patterson, or that the folk museum idea already existed very firmly at Halifax. I notice that Mr Atkinson says he had the notion that the Lillehammer concept should lead to establishing such a museum “in England” – the existing ones were in Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. He did help to establish the West Yorkshire Folk Museum, and it can still be visited.

So it seems to be the case that Robert Hewison, the supposed scourge of a ‘heritage industry’ that falsifies the past in order to make money, had taken part in promoting a misleading piece of history about the museums that he was supposed to know about. Frank Atkinson seems to have forgotten that someone else had already provided the inspiration for what became his own life’s work, and on his doorstep, too, just two years before. And Councillor S decided he didn’t have to read an unpublished book before he voted against proposals he didn’t like, because he wanted to believe it ‘proved’ he was right.

Perhaps all is fair in politics, polemics and self-publicity.

Other pages:

This is the text-only version of this page. Click here to see this page with graphics.
Edit this page | Manage website
Make Your Own Website: 2-Minute-Website.com