Industrial Heritage in the COVID-19 Era

Replica of Richard Trevithick’s steam engine at Blists Hill, Ironbridge. Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust is one of 131 industrial heritage organisations to receive Cultural Heritage Recovery grant funding in 2020.

Here’s a brief update on my day-job as Industrial Heritage Support Officer (IHSO) for England. September to December continued to be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with, in England, a second lockdown at short notice throughout November. All industrial archaeology and heritage sites closed once more, and many staff were put back into furlough. Consequently, some sites brought their annual winter closure forward, so that less than 25% of all publicly accessible protected sites re-opened their doors after lockdown ended at the beginning of December.

The IHSO project continues to expand its online presence. Three online Industrial Heritage Network (IHN) meetings (the first since 2019) were held in October, November, and December for London, the North West, and the West Midlands. The theme was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on volunteers, with Shane Gould (form Historic England), myself as IHSO, and regional Museum Development Officers giving short presentations about the current situation. There followed a round-table discussion at each meeting concerning the problems and experiences of lockdown, re-opening, volunteers, and new restrictions. In general, IHN members recorded no significant drop-off in volunteer numbers and enthusiasm, despite two lockdowns and continuing restrictions. Other members noted that virtual meetings were a very useful way of staying in contact with volunteers and that such meetings were not only financially beneficial, but also reached a wider audience.

An online poll by Museum Freelance was run between 12 and 30 November 2020 to explore the challenges faced by freelancers as a result of the COVD-19 pandemic, many of whom work in the industrial heritage sector. 350 people took part in the online survey from across the UK and the findings from freelancers working in museums, archives, galleries, and libraries, make for sobering reading. Covid-19 has had a severe impact on freelancers working in the sector, with 78% of respondents reporting a decrease in their income between March and October 2020, compared to the same period in 2019. 53% of respondents had had one or more projects/contracts cancelled as a result of COVID-19, whilst 63% of respondents had had one or more projects/contracts postponed as a result of COVID-19.

The Arkwright Society, who own and run Cromford Mills in Derbyshire (above) also received Cultural Heritage Recovery Fund monies in 2020.

There were two rounds of the Cultural Heritage Recovery Fund grants announced for England, in October and November. 39 organisations received grants totalling £18,062,984 from Arts Council England and 92 organisations received grants totalling £16,220,082 from Historic England. Most of these grants were for sums under £1 million, ranging from £13,200 for the Saltaire World Heritage Education Association to £717,400 for the Arkwright Society. However, three industrial heritage organisations received grants of over one million pounds: the Black Country Living Museum; Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust; and the London Transport Museum.

The number of industrial sites receiving support grants was spread across the following areas: 13 in the East of England; 16 in the east Midlands; five in London; six in the North East; 14 in the North West; 21 in the South East; 33 in the South West, 12 in Yorkshire, and 11 in the West Midlands. As of December 2020, 131 of the c. 600 industrial monuments and sites protected and open to the public (21.8% or one in five) have now received emergency support grants.

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