Heritage in Austerity Britain

By James Dowsett – @jdowsea

James in an MPhil Student in Modern British History at Cambridge. His research focusses on plebeian constitutionalism in the long eighteenth-century.

March will be the final month the Queen Street and Helmshore Mill Museums are open to the public. These beleaguered monuments, the last working examples of the Lancashire cotton spinning and weaving industry upon which Britain’s industrial revolution was built, are faced with an uncertain future. That these sites of unquestionable national significance are to be forced to close their doors is nothing other than a national shame. Local residents have established a change.org petition pleading Lancashire County Council to save both mills from imminent closure. 1st April is the date designated for their termination. However, the Queen Street and Helmshore Mill Museums are only the latest soon-to-be fatalities of an austerity agenda that places the funding position of local authority museums at an astonishingly high risk. Cuts to local government grants outlined in the 2015 spending review will undeniably result in more museum closures. The Museum Association’s 2015 cuts survey recently revealed that in response to government cuts to local authority funding, 18% of museums were forced to close, or partially close, in 2015-16.

Local government cuts directly threaten the cultural heritage of each and every county in the United Kingdom. Faced with crippling budget restrictions, art and culture are the first to fall at the hands of the local authority axe-man. Classicist Mary Beard recently spoke out against Norfolk County Council’s decision to withdraw funding from an archaeological finds identification and recording service crucial for scholars and enthusiasts alike. Just last week, in a move widely condemned as ‘cultural vandalism,’ it was announced that 400,000 objects from the Royal Photographic Society collection housed at Bradford’s National Media Museum – including some of the earliest surviving daguerreotypes and colour photographs – were to be re-located to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Jonathan Jones of The Guardian has seen in these developments evidence of “Britain’s pernicious north-south divide,” a malevolent design in which our shared cultural-heritage is reduced to a “country of green fields and landed estates, of gentry portraits and Etonian prime ministers.” This week it emerged that a £300m local government relief fund is to be disproportionately distributed to Tory-run councils in the southern shires. Yet, the situation is indeed graver still. The austerity agenda is no respecter of regional difference. A fault-line has been drawn between the metropolis and, simply, everywhere else. Cultural product, once the diverse sum of the rich fabric of the United Kingdom, is presently being sucked, like a vacuum, into London. National museums like the V&A, National Art Gallery, and British Museum will most likely be able to weather the storm of attrition. The local museum will disappear beneath the veil.

Burnley in Lancashire, the home of Queen Street Mill Museum and, at one time, the world’s largest single producer of cotton cloth, now boasts the 14th and 15th most deprived wards in the United Kingdom. Since the mills closed, the town has experienced a near-terminal decline. Like many other post-industrial towns of the North of England, it is characterised by low wages, poor housing, high crime, a high welfare bill, and endemic unemployment. Burnley is a place that industry forgot. But it cannot, and should not be forced to forget industry. The indelible handprints of monuments such as Queen Street and Helmshore Mill Museums leave democratic, universally-accessible reminders of past struggle, past defeat, past victory. A cultural battle is being waged. Though perhaps just one of the many proxy conflicts stirred up by a deeply regressive policy agenda, it is a cause that simply cannot be lost. In a country in which such valuable vestiges of common past are permitted to suffer a slow and painful death, one may be fooled into thinking that the situation in places like Burnley is simply how it has always been. Without that which heritage has bequeathed to us, we are all firmly and fixedly rooted in the crushing tyranny of the present.


(Image curtosey of Chris Allen, via wikimedia commons)

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