What is the purpose of Industrial Archaeology? Here is a personal view illustrated with my recent experiences in the field. The events which come to mind are: my recent talk, ‘The Art of Submarine Control’, delivered to a BIAS meeting and the background to that talk; the establishment of the Saltford Brass Mill Project as a ‘Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO); and involvement in the 2017 B&NES Museums Week.
The ‘The Art of Submarine Control’ started life as an activity for delivery in schools as part of the STEM programme (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). I first became involved with STEM 15 years ago while working with the then Department of Trade and Industry, tasked with the conduct of a skills review and establishment of a skills development programme for the energy sector. STEM is a Government sponsored initiative which seeks to encourage engineers who are active in their field to become STEM Ambassadors and go into schools to deliver activities which put engineering into context and encourage young people to enter the profession. (STEM’s website is at www.stem.org.uk and I would encourage those of you have an engineering background to consider becoming a STEM Ambassador). My objective was to create an activity which explored the engineering concepts I use in may day-job, namely buoyancy, stability, pressure and compressibility. The challenge was how to illustrate the activity for which I turned to industrial archaeology. The operation of submarines is, by necessity, surrounded in secrecy but there are many accounts of WWII submarine operations on which I could draw. The activity used the development of submarines in the 20th Century, supported by readily available pictures which I was able to use to the whet the imagination of young people. The activity has proven not only of interest to secondary school children but also to groups such as BIAS, U3A and Probus. I have even used elements of the activity in a lecture I deliver to a Post Graduate course at University College London. This provides one answer to ‘what is the purpose of Industrial Archaeology’: to use the past to inspire people about what can be achieved in the future. This is captured in a quotation of the astronomer Carl Sagan: ‘you have to know the past to understand the present’.
The second event which illustrates the purpose of Industrial Archaeology is the creation of the Saltford Brass Mill Project as a CIO. The project has been in existence since the early 1980s, its origins going back to the Saltford Furnace Project of the Avon Industrial Buildings Trust who took on a lease on the mill in 1981. Sustaining the mill was beyond their means however and in the mid-1990s the building was restored by English Heritage who transferred the lease to the District Council on condition that the council maintained the building and arranged for public access. The creation of B&NES resulted in the transfer of the lease to the new unitary authority and the Saltford Brass Mill Project was formed in 1997 to interpret the mill (which is a scheduled monument) and open the monument to the public. Since that time there has been a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the council and the project, but to ensure the future of the mill it is intended to formalise the relationship requiring the project to become a legal entity; hence the creation of a CIO. This has required us to rethink our purpose. Our starting position was that our objectives were the inward looking conservation of the monument and the conduct of research into the Bristol based brass industry. This however did not meet the criteria of the Charities Commission and we had to reverse our objectives placing emphasis on the outward looking benefit of the public. This adds a second element to the purpose of Industrial Archaeology, making the results of our work available to the public.
The third event that influenced my thoughts was the B&NES Museums week. The Saltford Brass Mill was open to visitors over the two weekends of the event when we welcomed a wide range of visitors ranging from seven year olds to a lecturer in politics from the University of London. Perhaps the most common view we heard expressed was ‘I didn’t realise that’. Our new waterwheel display, coupled with our working waterwheel and operating sluices seeks to explain the nuances of waterwheel technology and the exploitation of topography. The realisation that all waterwheels are not the same came as a surprise to many and inspired thoughts about generation of hydro-electric power. We also hosted a sound and visual installation coupled with poetry and music entitled ‘Sweet Waters’. The installation was created by a lecturer from Bath Spa University and took as its theme the legacies of the 18th Century triangular slave trade; the Bristol Brass Company having being formed to serve that trade. The installation drew a different audience to the mill and explored its past from an alternative perspective to the history of technology. With the scheduled industrial monument as a back-drop we were able to reach out to a wider range of people satisfying the objectives of our newly created charity and the objectives that underpinned the restoration of the mill in the 1990s.
So there, perhaps, is one answer to the question ‘what is the purpose of Industrial Archaeology?’ ‘You have to ‘know the past to understand the present’ and having gained an insight to the past it is important to share that knowledge and disseminate it for the benefit of the public.