Industrial archaeology remains the gawky and introverted teenager of the archaeological world – at least in the UK. In Britain it often feels like industrial archaeology (and its sibling Post-medieval Archaeology) is in equal measure misunderstood, ignored or looked-down upon by the academic world. It’s been left to voluntary societies, the profession, local authorities and some of the statutory heritage bodies (supported by a handful of pioneering academics) to explore, save, and understand Britain’s globally important industrial archaeology.
The popular image is dominated by evocative and massive sites, from bottle kilns and coal mines to railway stations and textile mills. But that is to overlook the archaeology of consumption and mass production, from ceramics to fabrics, and to turn a blind eye to Britain’s controversial role in the slave trade, the development of empire, and globalisation, which are all bound up in the industrialisation process. There’s no doubting, though, that the shift from a rural, agrarian society, to an urban-based manufacturing one is one of the most important changes in human history.
It was for that reason, and the effects of a decade of economic change and government cuts, that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Industrial Heritage undertook a review of the state of industrial heritage and archaeology last autumn. The result is a ‘Report on the Challenges Facing the Industrial Heritage Sector’. This provide a snapshot of the state of industrial heritage and archaeology in the UK, and a great way of being introduced to the huge range of sites and subjects available to explore from Britain’s industrial past. More importantly, it also has a set of practical recommendations These are:
1) To develop skills training in key aspects of industrial heritage. Examples could include dedicated post-graduate training in industrial heritage conservation, care and maintenance.
2) To improve the inclusivity of industrial heritage as a sector by improving community and industry outreach
3) To develop relationships with other trusts and groups within the sector in order to promote industry collaboration. Key agencies and professional bodies could establish a standing forum dedicated to establishing a national strategy for conserving the UK’s industrial heritage in collaboration with Government, promoting and driving through that national strategy and to regularly review and report on its progress.
A copy of the APPG IH report can be found here:
Two other events in May 2018 add to the green shoots of optimism in the industrial archaeology world. Firstly, amongst Historic England’s ‘Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places’ campaign, there is a theme on industry, trade and commerce. This encompasses 10 industrial sites from the Castlefield Canal Basin, Dunston Staiths, and the Old Furnace in Coalbrookdale, to Cromford Mills, Middleport Pottery, and the Halifax Piece Hall, taking in along the way the Rochdale Pioneers Shop, the Lloyd’s Building in London, the Blue Anchor in Helston and the Morris Garage in Oxford.
Secondly today (27 May 2018) marks the partial re-opening of the Helmshore Mill Textile Museum in Lancashire, threatened with permanent closure since 2016. As the APPG IH report notes ‘Britain’s industrial heritage is a crucial part of the formation or our national identity at home and worldwide’. High time more archaeologists took it seriously, then.