Saving a Revolution: Industrial Heritage and the Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has impacted on all aspect of home and work life, around the globe: archaeology and heritage included. Adapting to the threat of spreading the disease has been particularly challenging in the archaeology and heritage sector, which like the Arts, relies on personal contact and interaction with volunteers and audiences of all ages. One of the great strengths of the British heritage sector is the active role of the volunteer, and the contribution they make to researching and understanding the past for the present.

The Council for British Archaeology have been charting the impact of the voluntary sector on the archaeological world for many decades, with two landmark surveys in 2010 and 2018 – see here: https://new.archaeologyuk.org/Content/downloads/6658_Supporting%20Community%20Archaeology%20in%20the%20UK%20Survey%202018.pdf

Although the archaeology voluntary sector remains active and large, across all aspects of the archaeology process and all periods, there are worrying trends in the 2018 report compared to the 2010 report: a growing lack of skills in dissemination (archiving and publication); a drop in participation in the administration and running of groups; a lack of online skills; and an age profile of membership skewed to the over-60s. A general decline in external funding sources was also recorded in the most recent survey.

It is against this background that I want to look at just one segment of the archaeology sector where these volunteers actively engage: industrial heritage and industrial archaeology, and the immediate problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, I want to look at the impact on the roughly 600 preserved industrial heritage monuments in England that are open to the public, since volunteers form a vital resource in opening up and show-casing these sites to the public. An opportunity to talk about the research I have been gathering at Industrial Heritage Support Officer for England came about because of the innovation forced on local groups by the pandemic.

The Berkshire Industrial Archaeology Group normally run a host of live activities for the Heritage Open Days events in September. Like many archaeology groups and societies BIAG was facing distancing restrictions that meant that the group was faced with either finding new ways to communicate or hibernating until the pandemic was over. Amongst the suggestions put to the group was a twitter conference (http://biag.org.uk/

This duly took place on 15th September 2020, with a suite of seven papers discussing local and national industrial archaeology topics as follows:

  • 16.00 – ‘I like it – tell me more: Getting into Industrial Archaeology’– Jo Alexander-Jones tweeting as @Berks_IA_Group
  • 16.15 – ‘Saving a Revolution: Industrial Heritage and the Impact of COVID-19’ – @IHSOEngland
  • 16.45 – ‘Surviving the Wrecking Ball: Industrial Buildings in Berkshire’ – @Berks_IA_Group
  • 17.15 – ‘Funiculars: The Ups and Downs of a leisure Transport Phenomenon’ – Victoria Stevens @FunicularFan
  • 17.45 – ‘Berkshire’s Gas Industry’ – @Berks_IA_Group
  • 18.15 – ‘Reading Cemetery: The Industrialisation of Death’ – John Holden @TheArcLampMan
  • 18.45 – ‘The Conservation of Industrial Written Heritage’ – Victoria Stevens tweeting as @TinMillPress

My twitter paper looked at the work of the Industrial Heritage Support Project for England, setup in 2012 and funded by Historic England and based at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, and the impact of COVID-19 on industrial heritage. There are an estimated 600 nationally designated industrial heritage sites in England which includes museums and/or monuments operated by volunteers, trusts, and/or local authorities. The Industrial Heritage Support project is designed to support these sites and those running them by: (a) providing help, support and, where necessary, signpost other organisations and sources of information; and (b) by creating collaborative self-help Industrial Heritage Networks across England to act as a forum to share knowledge and expertise. My twitter paper provided an initial overview of the impact of COVID-19 on this sector, characterising the main types of industrial heritage sites open to the public and how the volunteers and organisations running them responded to the challenges of the pandemic, from threats to the fabric of sites and new training needs, to emergency grant funding and economic viability.

‘Saving a Revolution: Industrial Heritage and the Impact of COVID-19’, the twitter text, follows:

1/15 Thanks @Berks_IA_Group Hi. I’m the Industrial Heritage Support Officer for England @IHSOEngland, a project based at Ironbridge @BlistsHill, funded by @HistoricEngland. My paper is entitled ‘Saving a Revolution: Industrial Heritage and the Impact of COVID-19’ #BIAG20

2/15 IHSO project has supported Industrial Heritage since 2012 by helping to: 1) Improve sustainability & conservation of c. 600 preserved publicly accessible IH sites in England 2) Enhance capacity & operating practices 3) Support arrangements to sustain this legacy #BIAG20

3/15 IHSO Outreach Programme has established 7 regional support Industrial Heritage Networks with the help of @AIndustrialArch & @AIMMuseums, working with groups such as @CanalRiverTrust, @ERIHUK to assist voluntary groups & local industrial museums where needed #BIAG20

4/15 IHSO project provides a regular flow of updates on events, guidance, grants & news for industrial heritage volunteers via its websites (industrialheritagesupport.com & industrialheritagenetworks.com), facebook (groupfacebook.com/IHSOengland) & twitter @IHSOengland #BIAG20

5/15 Current Challenges Facing c. 600 Publicly Accessible Industrial Heritage Sites: post-pandemic economic recovery; climate change; agricultural practice; planning regulations; & increasing the diversity of engagement. In this paper I’m focusing on the pandemic impact #BIAG20

6/15 The pandemic impact was swift. All c. 600 protected Industrial Heritage Sites in England were closed on 23 March 2020. This was just as the main tourist season was starting & just as many smaller sites were gearing up to open for the first time this year #BIAG20

7/15 The pandemic closure came after a month of weather chaos saw flooding in March affecting a number of Industrial Heritage museums such as @blistshill @HeronMill & Daniels Mill, whilst the sails & cap were torn off Burgh Le Marsh Windmill in the February gales #BIAG20

8/15 During lock down some industrial heritage sites suffered vandalism & trespass, with incidents recorded at preserved railways, like Peak Rail, and windmill sites. However, a dozen water- & wind-powered corn mills saw a boom in business as flour demand rose sharply #BIAG20

9/15 As the 1st pandemic wave eased re-opening preparations began. The Office of Road & Rail issued ‘back to operation’ guidance for heritage railways in May. @HistoricEngland issued re-opening guidance on IH sites in June, noting potential damage to historic fabric #BIAG20

10/15 In July 29% of the c. 600 IH publicly accessible preserved sites in England re-opened. This rose to 45% by end of August. However, mass events such as fairs & rallies were cancelled. Many sites focussed on opening the food retail &/or open spaces on their sites #BIAG20

11/15 In August the re-opened sites included 52 watermills, 41 heritage railways, 38 canal & river sites, & 34 windmills. In September many sites provided online tours & guides for the @Heritageopenday festival, & some like Crofton Pumping Station COVID-compliant tours #BIAG20

12/15 BUT, at least 43 of the 600 sites have announced that they will not re-open until 2021. Some Local Authority, National Trust & Historic England IH sites also remain closed. The long-term impact on volunteer numbers & the financial viability of these sites is unclear #BIAG20

13/15 Fund raising events cancelled at IH sites, admission numbers limited due to COVID with online booking the norm. Many open sites reported visitor numbers down 50% over the summer season due to the lock down. Redundancies have also been announced at several IH sites #BIAG20

14/15 BUT not all gloom. 12 preserved railways raised £3million from the public in emergency appeals. IA heritage sites have received emergency funding from @HistoricEngland, such as @WhealMartyn, & many more from COVID emergency funds thru @HeritageFundUK & Arts Council #BIAG20

15/15 The IHSO project will continue to monitor the pandemic’s impact. But it will also continue to support those celebrating our rich industrial heritage by encouraging good practice, building more links, & encouraging the engaging of non-traditional audiences. Thank you #BIAG20

Blists Hill run by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was one of the first industrial heritage sites to re-open in July under strict COVID-19 social distancing regulations.

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