Living history: Jaqueline Hayes engages with the past at the Beamish Museum
Beamish Museum is an open-air, living history museum that demonstrates the social, industrial and rural history of the north east of England, focusing particularly on the time periods of 1825, 1913 and 1940. Having visited Beamish many times over the past 30 years, I was delighted to be offered a six week placement at the museum, working with the learning team. My first day was a whirlwind of activity as I met the Head of Learning, who I would be shadowing for two weeks. He took me on a tour of the museum visiting the pit village, the town, Pockerley Manor and the newly erected St Helen’s Church; he also introduced me to the various teams who are situated in different places around the site. I met members of the learning team as they returned to the office from locations both inside and outside the museum. I was very surprised to discover the wide range of activities that the team are involved with and particularly the amount of outreach work they do, visiting schools around the north east and bringing living history to the classroom. During the first few days I became accustomed to seeing members of staff dressed as, amongst other things, workhouse masters, maids and suffragettes and couldn’t wait for my chance to dress up! The opportunity came when I was asked to accompany a group of ladies who were demonstrating knitting in the pit village, creating items that would have been sent to soldiers during the First World War. Dressed in early 20th century costume and chatting to visitors was a wonderful experience and really impressed upon me how powerful living history can be in bringing heritage to life.
I was especially interested to learn from the team about the Remaking Beamish project and how various communities are being included in the development work surrounding this exciting new venture; the plans include creating a whole new 1950’s town as well as further developing the 1800’s area of the museum. I became involved in this when I was asked to work on the pilot of a new learning activity, based on the death of Joseph Hedley, a quilter from Northumberland who was murdered in 1826. My task included writing the script for a murder mystery, which will be delivered to schoolchildren visiting the museum. I quickly became engrossed in the story as I read articles from contemporary newspapers and pamphlets detailing Joe’s tragic death. As nobody was ever charged with Joe’s murder, my challenge was to produce an activity, based on real life characters, where the children could use investigation skills to identify who the murderer might have been. I also had to produce some clues that the children could find and had great fun in obtaining a piece of quilt with a ‘bloody handprint’ on it! In addition to developing the ‘Joe the Quilter’ activity I was also asked to look at evaluation strategies; I spent some time researching various frameworks and criteria that might be appropriate for the staff to use and also designed a questionnaire that may be used for school survey purposes.