If I was asked what my favourite museum is I would struggle to answer, but I can guarantee that Beamish would rank highly. A visit to Beamish is an immersive experience. Instead of objects behind glass and interpretive text panels there are real people in authentic costume demonstrating activities and telling stories. The 300 acre estate absorbs people, it swallows up queues at the entrance, only to spit them out after a full day exploring all the hidden nooks and crannies that the museum has to offer. It’s more of a time machine than a museum – even mobile phones struggle to get signal as if the site itself is caught in some kind of magical time loop. The site itself is divided into different areas, each with different time periods. The oldest area is Pockerley Old Hall, which is set in an 1820s landscape. Both the Pit Village and the Town are based in the 1900s, while the Farm skips to the 1940s. I can assume that the collections displayed in these areas are rotated and exchanged for items within storage, at least every time I have visited I have seen new things. The result is that although the themes stay fairly set, each visit is refreshingly new for a visitor.
You can ride on Victorian trams, not just look at them. You can see old fashioned trains working, in fact you can smell the oil and steam and hear their piercing whistle before you get to them. Coal fires burn in the houses, sweets are made in the sweet shop and bread in the bakery. You can even hunker down at the pub with a local beer, not to worry if you spill a little the sawdust around the edge of the bar is there to soak that up. It is a living museum. The founder, Frank Atkinson, was inspired by Scandinavian folk museums in the 1950’s and decided to create an open aired museum of the North East of England that would vividly illustrate the lives of ordinary people and bring the region’s history to life. I rather think he succeeded.
My personal favourite part of the museum is the dentists. This is located in the town in a row of terraced houses that were taken apart brick by brick from Gateshead and rebuilt on the museum site. It’s a highlight for me because, alongside the sweet shop, it is the part of the museum that I can remember being drawn to as a child. Whenever I have visited there has been a costumed interpreter acting as the dentist, greeting you into the upstairs room of his dental surgery and introducing you to a 1900’s dental practice. From my earliest visit I can vividly recall the velvet plush chair, the whirring foot-pumped dental drill (which is demonstrated should you show enthusiasm) and the rows of teeth and mouth casts in the adjoining dental workshop room.
Another highlight which is often missed for more interactive museum areas is the museum store. Located at the Regional Resource Centre, it gives you a glimpse into a small section of the items within the museum stores and witness first-hand the row upon row of objects donated, stacked high on museum roller racking. The scale of the shelving and the size of some of the objects on display in this manner is hard to comprehend in a photograph, but in real life it is both intriguing and spectacular. The more you look the more you see.
Beamish is successful at bringing local history to life, but it’s also still evolving. New, or in fact ‘old’, Chemist and Photography shops are due to open their doors in the town in May. Plans are also afoot for a 1950s area, which will include objects and buildings donated by local people to tell the local history and stories of a time period still firmly in living memory. One feature will be the Grand Electric Cinema from Ryhope in Sunderland, which will be moved to the site brick by brick before being lovingly reconstructed. This area will not just be for visitors to peak into, it is also sent to include a centre for people living with dementia and their family and carers.
It’s probably one of the very few museums that you come away from on a high from the sugar consumed in the sweet shop, and smelling faintly of coal fires and (if you meet the pit ponies and give them a tickle) horses.