Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Two museums: don't touch and do.

We've visited two very different local museums in the past two days.

Bankfield, the first, is an old-fashioned 'don't touch' kind of museum, with everything behind glass, to be viewed and explained only. The grand houses of old mill-owners are the closest things we have to stately homes around here and Bankfield belonged to Edward Akroyd, heir of James Akroyd & Sons Ltd, one of the country's largest worsted manufacturers.

Image Hosted by

The Akroyds and Bankfield played a key part in the history of Halifax and in my personal history, because they were primarily responsible, in Halifax, for bringing the cottage weavers down from the hills and into the factories.

My great, great grandfather was a cottage weaver and as a child I loved to hear from his daughter, my great grandmother, about what life was like for them. They didn't weave every day, but on weaving days the furniture would be pushed back and the loom brought out into the room. The whole family worked on the cloth and associated jobs, before the finished piece was taken to market. There were cloth halls in every local town here then, and the cottage weavers made a decent living, from what my great grandmother told me.

One of my grandfathers worked in one of the weaving factories in Halifax, from the age of 13 when he left school, until his retirement, with a few years' absence in World War II. Back then in the early 1970s, while his mother-in-law was telling me fireside tales about the cottage loom, he'd be working at the factory one and Bankfield was already a museum, opposite the mill houses in which most of my extended family lived.

I was often there too and it hasn't changed much. It smells the same as it did 35 years ago and it still fires my imagination, though I no longer dream of living there. It can't ever have been a house to feel at home in. There are wax models of the family - still the same ones - in their stiff stays and crinolines, still looking extremely uncomfortable. Uncomfortable clothes, uncomfortable houses... not much to envy about the Victorian lifestyle, rich or poor.

But I love the place: it's a museum with a heart. Somebody has passionately collected toys, costumes, old machinery - local junk from the past 100+ years, basically, and cleaned it up for display. I found myself peering at old ranges to see how they worked, and being laughed at by the girls for recognising some of the toys as being ones I'd had new as a child.

Some of it's spooky - long, dark corridors and shuttered rooms full of the kind of waxworks that came alive so credibly in recent Dr Who series that they made us jump and be glad to escape. There's a huge wooden music machine which still plays a harmony through punched holes on a 2 foot wide brass disk when you insert a coin, and a myriad of other treasures.

Outside in the park was a clover-shaped stone paddling pool, in which I played as a baby. It's filled in now with earth and grassed over. Do we have a verb for Health and Safety yet? It's been Health-and-Safety'd, along with the spinning top roundabout and the 12-seater wooden rocker. We still had fun though - there's some good modern stuff in their place now.

Edward Akroyd and his ilk priced and bribed the cottage weavers down from the hills into the factories and then agonised over housing them all cheaply, huddled together in their hundreds on the same sized plot as the owner's single house and park. No wonder their consciences were pricked. Working families lost their independence, their health and a sizeable chunk of the woolen industry profits in the name of progress.

Now the story has gone nearly full circle and the old mills are being converted into executive apartments and arts centres. We're thinking about getting some sheep and taking up weaving here. At Bankfield yesterday I bought a book about building looms. It kind of made sense to do so.

Today, by way of contrast, we've been to Eureka! the purpose-built Halifax children's museum, down by the train station. Everything there is to be touched and played with. Nothing is enclosed in glass cases. I think Lyddie preferred it, but I didn't. It seemed plastic and artificial. Here's a toilet you can see flushing. There's a pretend car you can pretend to fix. Here are some pretend roadworks you can go down into, to see what's pretending to be under the pretend road.

Image Hosted by

And hoards of school children on trips with identical blue sweatshirts being told: "You can touch this! Look! You can play with that! Try this! Test that! Stand on this, climb on that, push this, pull that, twist the other!" I smiled wryly at the teachers' unconscious stream of instructions. Even on Discovery Street (Yes, really!) there's no such thing as free exploration for many children.

As for real exploration, I find it sort of nice but sort of sad that children now have to be 'encouraged' to play with a plastic, pretend version of the real world which is now almost completely an exclusively adult-inhabited reality. Lyddie wasn't interested in finding plastic worms under the plastic road and I didn't blame her. She preferred to chase the pigeons outside, the only child in 200 or so, running free.


Blogger Louise said...

Oh, the kids and I spent sooo much time at Bankfield. We all loved it, especially the spooky bits ;o)

9:51 pm, June 07, 2007  
Blogger Allie said...

Yes. I know what you mean. I think that's why I dislike 'soft play centres' - plastic, indoor versions of the real world made 'safe' for children.

As a child, I liked the 'Booth Museum of Natural History' in our town. It houses a hideous, grizzly collection of stuffed birds - all shot by a Victorian gentleman. It is dark and spooky.

I like the sound of Bankfield.

11:57 pm, June 07, 2007  
Blogger Elaine said...

I love Bankfield but JR did find the 'no touch' part too much to bear :)

10:35 am, June 08, 2007  
Blogger Tibetan Star said...

Hi Gill,

its OT but I thought you might like to know that we can now watch the 3 TRAP episodes online. If you want the links just email me.

3:24 pm, June 08, 2007  
Blogger Nic said...

I have tagged you for a meme over on

Utterly with you on 'pretend play', I have been heard to rant about the post office play sets in educational toy catalogues more than once when I can recall many happy hours *making* post office stuff to play with or getting real packets and tins, constructing a pretend till from a cardboard box and making paper bank notes and plasticine coins to play shops with.

12:23 am, June 09, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Thanks Paula - that's good news :-)

Thanks Nic, will do that ASAP :-)

Oh wow! Elaine and Lou, glad I'm not the only Bankfield fan. I didn't really think I would be ;-)

Allie, Booth sounds great too :-)

4:43 pm, June 09, 2007  

Post a Comment

<< Home