Grandma Poppy’s museum is closing. My children have few memories of my mum Diana Lay, a polymath who held several careers and even more qualifications in her life. So almost 10 years on from her death it’s the stories we tell which bring them close to her now, and make sure that second death – occurring when a person slips from living memory – is long delayed.
Many of our stories are set during her time first as librarian and archivist and later as curator of the Bass Museum of Brewing History in Burton upon Trent – or the National Brewery Centre as it’s currently known. She professionally thrived there: passionate about her role as temporary caretaker of the museum collection, and the ways in which she could support the museum community as well as amplify opportunities more widely. In her eulogy I said the sight of a Bass Red triangle would always bring her to my mind (for all the right reasons), and while in the family we may still call it ‘Grandma Poppy’s Museum’ we know it’s impact and importance is way beyond our personal connection. It’s inextricably linked to my mum, but in truth she belongs to it through her service rather than it ever having ever been hers.
Because of her work I spent much time in my formative years in and around the museum (I often glibly say I grew up in a museum) and my life was and continues to be richer in so many ways for that experience. Although I didn’t recognise that back then and I’m sure I moaned, resisted, and rolled my eyes whether I was dressed in Victorian garb in a steam parade, barrel rolling across the yard with the museum club, sent to desperately seek blue hydrangea petals for a Well Dressing depiction of St Modwen, breathing in the smell of the stables while looking in awe at the shire horse gentle giants, or when I was simply and aimlessly spinning in a rickety wooden chair daydreaming of the more exciting times my friends were surely having while I was surrounded by the dust mote ghosts of the library.
That part of my childhood inspired settings in my debut novel, and with hindsight I can see it set things alight in me on experience design and nurturing intellectual and emotional resonance in an audience; the privilege of bearing witness to history on grand and every day scales; and the importance of community and DIY ethos.
These are all things important and at the centre of who I am in my work and personal life as an adult – from my first job as a local beat internet journalist (with Elaine Pritchard who’s post bought the closure to my attention), the historical research and writing I contributed to a BAFTA-winning project (also with Elaine Pritchard!), the experience design I do on the daily in my work now, to the communities nurtured around my record label. Sometimes the links between where we came from and where we are may be subtle, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t strong.
Now the museum is closing and there is understandable shock that owner’s Molson Coors are to shut the doors permanently on 31 October 2022, favouring to use the site as their new Burton HQ. There is the usual economic impact of such a decision – job losses and cancelled wedding and event bookings high among them here – but there’s also huge concern over the lack of detail in what will be done with a collection of both local and national importance. There is suggestion it will move to Town House on the High Street in Burton, but little practical detail on whether this has really been thought through and planned to the level it should have been with just over a month until it needs to be relocated. There’s even lack of clarity on the current state of that building, how much of the collection it can house in the available space and how suitable that space is, whether there will be outdoor space, and how long any readying and relocation work would take. It also doesn’t cover the loss of a venue in the town, the impact that will have, and any alternatives for it.
If nothing else this announcement has been communicated poorly from the timing during a national period of mourning to the details available and the comments from those who should be providing reassurance (as ever, I feel for the Comms Officers who will surely have advised and been shot down on ways to communicate better).
Questions over the closure of the National Brewery Centre (NBC)
Alongside the question so many voices are posing on ‘what can we do?’ (sign the petition, write to councillors and MPs, lobby the company, visit the National Brewery Centre before it closes) there is also a string of more detailed asks.
For me they gather into themes of:
Heritage, collective memory, and preservation of the past
The closure has been announced with only the vaguest suggestion of what will happen to the collection and the vast archive and library. And to announce it at such short notice without real detail of relocation and preservation suggests either arrogance, ignorance, or a heady mix of both that amounts to cultural vandalism in the name of commercial progress.
For those unfamiliar with the National Brewery Centre the collection includes
- artefacts dating back to Anglo Saxon times
- industrial machinery from across the years of brewing (formative, localised and commercialised as well as the supporting industries from cooperage to branding)
- cultural artefacts from brewing companies and communities
- masses of ephemera including ledgers, beer mats and bar games from Edwardian skittles to flashing fruit machines
- and an accurate scale model with running trains showing Burton on Trent at 10.30am on 10 October 1921 (one of my personal favourite exhibits – I’ve spent hours lost looking through the tiny streets as the trains hissed through the model town).
I spent many days – as have many others – volunteering as a warden and helping visitors get more from their journey through the galleries. But the collection goes beyond the galleries to also include:
- a working Robey steam engine
- numerous vehicles motorised and steam driven, including an iconic ‘bottle car’ and the rather fun ‘Tango caravan’
- a locomotive engine
- a Victorian (I think) men’s urinal
- so many pub and other forms of signage
- and shire horses plus their drays, tack and brass – yes, this museum has living residents.
As I pace my memories of the museum I know I’ve barely touched on the collection in my lists here, and that each visitor will have their own favourite exhibit or experience.
Although it must be 20 years or more since I was in the library or archive this part of the collection too is vast. The leather-bound spines of huge books full of spidery copperplate wording, the artificially cooled network of archive rooms where the most delicate items are carefully stored between custom-built metal shelves moved by hefty hand-spun wheels. I spent a summer watching and cataloguing all the Carling TV adverts (including the famous Excalibur one) along with those of other drinks and brands. Another time I filled days of a school holiday putting together a history of Burton’s Guild Street, showing changes to building and usage and contextualising with social as well as economic changes (maybe my friend’s weren’t having more fun than me after all!).
The buildings the collection is housed in are important historically too. The iconic 3-storey Joiner’s Shop, the stables and vehicle sheds, the custom built base for the Robey Engine, the platform and section of track on which the locomotive stands, the tunnel under the yard (or is this myth?), and the working micro-brewery (where among the output was once Sarah’s Sauce, a beer brewed for my 18th birthday). Are they really to be reduced, or removed, for office space?
Detail and reassurances on the relocation and ongoing care of the collection and archive is urgently needed from Molson Coors and East Staffs Borough Council (and potentially Staffordshire County Council have an interest here?). It would be good to hear too how the same amount of more will remain available for viewing, and how the visitor experience is being built to make this an opportunity rather than a threat. This isn’t a straightforward public collection into private hands, as it has been a privately-owned collection for time. Yet it is a privately-owned one which has been available to the (paying) public, and so it’s loss is news delivered brutally and felt deeply.
Part of successful progress is preservation and so far there’s been little indication that the level of planning needed for a collection of this scale has happened, putting a vital aspect of local and national heritage at risk.
Cultural, community, and commercial spaces
So far there has been little sense that considered place making, a key aspect of which is fostering relationships between people and places through collective memory as much as urban planning, is happening at all never mind with a view to success. It seems instead there is a tilt toward commercial progress as the route to a regenerated town.
But from this outside observer position Molson Coors seem to favour the blunt rather than nuanced in meeting their progressive office needs. I suggest they could learn something from Michael Thomas Bass on being a benefactor as well as a brewer, and how local cultural amenities and opportunities are an important part of a thriving committed workforce. My mum was interested in his philanthropic work and his recognition that to create the optimal workforce conditions required investment in their living and social opportunities as well as their working ones. I’m sure had they been around he’d have got a few lunch break mental health webinars on the agenda but instead it was libraries, schools and societies he put his backing behind. Perhaps an opportunity for Molson Coors to lean on their acquired fore-bearers and think more deeply on the benefit to them as well as the town and people generally their business a heritage collection can bring when leveraged well.
The loss of the museum is cultural, and it is both a commercial gain and loss, but little is being said so far on the destruction of community. Even from my removed position, and heavy reliance on hindsight, I believe there are a number of micro-communities symbiotically linked with the National Brewery Centre. There is, of course, the workforce community. And also, the brewing community – those interested in beer as a consumable and the social aspect of the Brewery Tap, and those using the White Shield Tower micro-brewery in some form. There is the stables community who care for the horses. There is the steam community – known as the Black Hand Gang when I was more often around – and their care and knowledge of vehicles, engines and mechanicals. There is the ‘museum’ community – the individuals and societies which support the preservation and work in cataloguing a collection as well as the wardens who supplement paid staff in the running of the centre. Not to mention hosting visiting communities sharing and gathering around all manner of interests – fairgrounds always a winner with me!
It is also a loss for outside communities to use as hired space. For years I couldn’t so much as drive past the site without being overcome with emotion but as I’ve grown around my grief at losing my mum I’ve returned to the National Brewery Centre for events as well as family visits. What first persuaded me back was Circularity – I’ve attended great talks on the move from ‘me to we’ and also as part of their live podcasting where there was beautiful synchronicity (circularity if you will) in me talking as an author about the novel featuring a museum in the museum which inspired that setting in my writing, and experiencing my own memories while promoting a story about the importance of memory. The closure means one less option for people to gather and become greater individually and collectively through doing so.
Communities are hard to assign a tangible value to and so businesses find them hard to understand, leverage, or even recognise. Others (in public service) really should though. And here we have the removal of at least five important naturally-forming communities in favour of a single forced one. Hard as it may be to capture their value, this is work which must be done as part of this decision and onward plan. Has it? How are these people and communities to be supported and relocated alongside the (important) ‘things’ which make up the National Brewery Centre.
Democracy and servant leadership
Which brings us subtly on to democracy and the public sphere. There is politics around the decision but I won’t comment further on that here: I’m not close enough to goings on in the town, other recent development decisions, local or tourism plans, or the player’s involved. There are others far better placed to present commentary and put on pressure from that angle.
However, for me this announcement raises some interesting questions around democracy, the public sphere, and especially about servant leadership in public life.
Although there are local economic, heritage, tourism, and community impacts this decision was announced without warning and certainly looking like it’s happened without any consultation. Discussion and questions are now being made against the clock putting people at a significant disadvantage to business. Public leaders must balance the needs of both parties, but it is shocking prior discussions have not been at least somewhat surfaced into view, the decision has not been better managed or communicated, all leaving a slight tone of contempt in the whole affair. Not a good look for elected representatives, and hardly fertile ground from which to bring all together in the name of regeneration.
My mum saw herself as a temporary caretaker for a historical collection and the place it lived. She was a servant leader, a steward, in that sense. Perhaps some local and corporate leadership could take inspiration from this and remember they too are a passing moment in a longer timeline. Cautious actions within bold strategies, ensuring no harm is done and good will come, are a better legacy to build than short term gains can provide.
Economic and environmental impact
I see why the location of the National Brewery Centre is attractive as a HQ – there’s plenty of parking, ready-made conference rooms with on-site catering, and building which are old enough to be interesting but no so old their insides aren’t malleable enough to be shaped for new purpose. Plus the company already own it so they’re leveraging an existing asset – something which is always going to be popular with those focused on the bottom line.
There are both benefits and losses to the move economically – Molson Coors will be a big investor in Burton so a developed HQ is needed for their operation. At the same time there will be job losses and negative economic ripples from the closure of the National Brewery Centre – the jobs directly lost and micro-brewery industry shuttered, but also the tourism impacted by the loss of the town’s main attraction drawing visitors local, national and international.
And what of the environmental impact? How will the proposal impact on traffic in the town, the access for coaches bring school trips even if or when the collection (or part of) is made available at a new location, what resources are involved in the transportation of the collection and how will materials be recovered and reused (such as the blue brick plinth for the Robey Engine)?
I long for someone to show they have done this deep thinking and impact assessment, and be able to communicate it well.
As with the political aspect there are others who are far better placed than I to carry most of the questions, and others, forward. But I add my voice (the echo of my mother in it – I cannot speak for her but I feel deeply she would be incredibly saddened by the closure news), as shock becomes anger becomes (hopefully successful) action. I ask those involved in the making of and communicating the decisions to provide robust answers with transparent workings as soon as possible.
If you as a reader can do nothing else please sign the petition or join the Facebook group. If you have time and energy for a little more support there will be details in the group of how to get involved – whether it is lobbying and appealing to those involved in the decision, those who may have an interest in the collection (such as the Museum Association), by visiting the museum, or getting involved with the tireless and passionate communities of volunteers who have always been its heartbeat.
I really hope (and will help achieve a future where) the museum lives on as more than a memory, and lessons are learnt by decision makers on how the past must be an active and cared for part of any future.