Street Museums and Museum Streets: Researching museum history

By Bill Longshaw

In recent years, I’ve begun to research the history of recreated streets in UK museums, heritage sites and some other, more surprising, places. My work has included a mapping and scoping exercise and several visits, producing drawings and photographs. Largely conducted over the internet, especially during lockdown, but with some input from colleagues in the Social History Curator’s Group, my research has now produced a list of around 130 ‘streets’ of all shapes and sizes. These range from well-loved museum displays, like those at York Castle Museum and Salford Museum and Art Gallery to more quirky examples like streets in care homes, designed to help dementia suffers to adapt to their surroundings and even a Harry Potter fan’s own home-version of ‘Diagon Alley’.    

Lark Hill Place, Salford

More than 20 years ago, I created an exhibition for the People’s History Museum in Manchester called ‘Every Street, an Artist’s View’. This was something of a hybrid. Part art-installation and part social history display; tracing the intertwined lives of a group of past residents of one particular Ancoats street – Every Street – through 50 years of post-war life.

It could be said that this was the start of my interest in putting streets into museums as other, street-inspired exhibitions, including ‘1962: New Work by Bill longshaw’ (2002) and ‘Myth of the North’ (2007), both created for The Lowry in Salford, followed. For ‘1962’ we turned the whole of the Lowry’s promenade gallery into an early 1960s street, presented in black, white and grey, like the set of a kitchen-sink drama film. While ‘Myth of the North’ had a terraced street, complete with a co-op shop, a 1950s sitting room and a works canteen. All presented as tongue-in cheek, heritage-type back-drops for paintings by Lowry and work by other artists and photographers whose imagery has come to epitomise the mythical, English North.

1962, New Work by Bill Longshaw, the Lowry, Salford 2002
Myth of the North, the Lowry, 2007

My work as an artist and curator, on projects like ‘Every Street’ and ‘Myth of the North’, became the basis of a PhD, thesis entitled: ‘People, Myth and Museums, constructing the people’s past and white working-class Salford, 1945-2007’, which you can find here: https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?did=1&uin=uk.bl.ethos.479182

My research examined the way a mythical North was constructed in popular culture in post-war Britain and considered why popular myth-making and the evolution of a ‘people’s past’ in the heritage sector has served some groups better than others and actually alienated many of the working-class communities at the myth’s core, in places like Salford. As these things sometimes do, my thesis languished on the shelf for many years, as I concentrated on my career in museums. However, I always intended to revisit it and on blowing off the dust, was heartened to find that the sections on street museums and how they evolved still fired my imagination.   

My interest in streets, probably goes back even further than Every Street. To visiting Lark Hill Place, the recreated Victorian street at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, as a small child in the 1970s.  I have vivid memories of the dark, cavernous space; the corner shop, selling sugar mice and the strange, slightly eerie feeling that the space gives you. A sense I still get today. Lark Hill Place was created by Salford Museum and Art Gallery’s visionary curator, Ted (Albert) Frape in the 1950s. Like several other post-war curators, Frape, who also championed L.S. Lowry and persuaded the city to collect his work, was influenced by Kirkgate. The ‘bygone street’ constructed in the York Castle Museum by Dr John Kirk, to display a lifetime of folk collecting.

One of my sketches of Lark Hill Place Salford
Abbey Fold, Leeds

Kirk’s street, opened to the public in 1938 and has since become something of a landmark in the development of ‘living history’ in museums. In the post-war world, Frape and C. Maynard-Mitchell at the Abbey House Museum in Leeds were among a group of curators who set out to create exhibits which conveyed a new more inclusive vision of the ‘people’s past’ to a post-Beveridge nation, determined not to go back to the squalor and poverty of the hungry thirties. Other streets, as well as several ingenious representations of coal mines followed and by the 1970s, entire recreated ‘towns’ were emerging in open-air sites, like Beamish, Ironbridge and the Black Country Museum in Dudley, as heritage became an integral element in regenerating post-industrial areas.

I am currently considering where my research should go next. My survey begins with a look at the origins of recreated streets in the great exhibition boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Several ‘olde worlde’ towns, including ‘Olde London’, ‘Olde Edinburgh’, ‘Olde Liverpool’ and ‘Olde Manchester and Salford’ appeared as cornerstone attractions within larger exhibition complexes and even Kirkgate itself started life as part of a larger temporary exhibition.

The souvenir booklet of the ‘Olde Manchester and Salford’ exhibit from the Royal Jubilee Exhibition, Manchester 1887

In addition, there were scores of recreated ‘villages’ in exhibitions across Britain, before and just after the First World War. Many of these were designed to provide a flavour of the far-flung reaches of British Empire, populated by specially imported groups of ‘natives’, making the early history of street museums a problematic affair. Mixed up with the creation of what are now often termed ‘human zoos’ and the worst excesses of a brand of Imperialism that commodified people as readily as its history.

There are many contrasting themes that can be investigated through the history of recreated street, as well as opportunities for exhibitions and art works, which given my past, I am keen to explore. I would, therefore, be grateful for any ideas, help or advice on moving my project, which is still wholly un-supported and un-funded, forward. If you are interested in my past work, you can see some of it on my website. https://billlongshaw.wordpress.com/ or to contact me for a copy of my street museum list, please email: williamlongshaw@msn.com .

One thought on “Street Museums and Museum Streets: Researching museum history

  1. Pingback: Putting streets into museums… – Up and down every street

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