As part of my last radio program with Barnsley’s Horizon Radio’s RSL, I interviewed Barnsley Museums’ Jemma Conway. Originally broadcast on air May 12th, this is the whole of that interview transcribed.
I’m very excited about the new museum and I know that as I only live around the corner, it will be somewhere I’ll be spending a lot of time. In this interview Jemma chats with me about what you can expect to find in the museum and some of her favourite exhibits. Enjoy!
Can you explain just exactly what you do for Barnsley Museums?
Hi. I’m the Community Heritage Curator for Barnsley Museums and for the last few years I’ve been working on Experience Barnsley which is the new museum and discovery centre that is opening in the town hall.
There are lots of different parts to my role; I’ve been going out and meeting people who want to donate objects to us, I’ve been working on the displays, working with schools and in community centres, and looking after the collections.
For those that are unfamiliar with Experience Barnsley, what exactly is it?
The project to create the new museum in the town hall has been going for a few years now and it’s a really exciting project because Barnsley has never had a museum about Barnsley. There has been nowhere for people to go and find out about Barnsley’s history, what people have done for and in the town going back thousands of years.
There will be the Archive Centre in there as well. People will be able to discover the sound and film archive and discover maps and documents going back thousands of years. There will be lots on interactive parts of the museums, a brand new cafe and visitors centre and so it will be a place for families to go out and spend a day.
The Archives moved from Barnsley Library last December, and have been locked away in storage, ready to be moved into the museum. How will that look when it finally opens?
There will be a brand new Archive Centre that will be open to anybody wanting to discover their family history, find out more about their area, everything you need will be on hand to do that. There will be a temporary exhibition space too, which means there will be something new for people to see every time they visit.
My mum’s partner started exploring his family history late last year, and then suddenly the archives closed and he’ll be eager to get in there when it opens.
What can you expect to see when visit the museum?
The first thing you will come across is a poem created by Ian McMillan, local schools and community groups, and it’s a poem that welcomes you to the museum and it read out aloud by lots of different Barnsley voices, so from the start we are saying that this is a museum created by the people of Barnsley. You see we didn’t have a collection to start off with. Most museums have things in storage that they bring out and put on display but we went out into the public and said tell us about your Barnsley. We created the museum around people’s stories and experiences in lots of different ways.
I like that because retelling Barnsley’s history by telling personal stories make it much more accessible. Things become much more real when connected to a person and their history.
It does. For me it’s so much more interesting when you go somewhere when you see someone’s personal experience because you connect with it in a much more unique level than you would just looking at objects in a case.
What was one of the first objects you got donated?
We’ve had so many different kinds of objects donated but one of the first things donated that I went to collect was from a house in Harrogate and when we got there, we weren’t looking for the object we ended up with. The lady there said she had a little box here of my Granddad’s World War I memorabilia and that she wasn’t sure if we’d be interested in it.
I opened up the box and inside it was an army issued biscuit from the trenches in the First World War. It was totally intact.
Did you not have a nibble to make sure it was authentic?
Ha, no! Apparently they weren’t very nice at the time, so I couldn’t imagine it would be very nice now. To think that had survived the war, had come back to Barnsley and eventually ended up in Harrogate. He was called George Burnett and he was lost on the Somme for four days. He suffered shell shock and a terrible wound. He was eventually treated and came back home to Barnsley and went on to work in the pits.
What’s the furthest afield you got an object from?
A chap from Leicester came back to work in Barnsley at Beatson Clark glass factory and he bought us a sticky bomb. It had like a knitted coating on it. It was used in the Second World War and was produced here in Barnsley.
Wow! What does a knitted coating on a bomb do?
I think… the explosive is inside the glass and the sticky fluid would coat the knitted-like fabric and that would stick to the side of whatever you would want to blow up.
Can explain the kinds of changes that have been made to the town hall to accommodate the new museum?
All sorts really. We are very lucky to have had funding from the Lottery Heritage Fund and the European Development Fund, which had allowed us to upgrade the town hall. As you can imagine it was built in the 30s, it had its original windows, original heating and lighting system, so it really did need that upgrade to make it more sustainable and relevant. A lot of it you wouldn’t notice. The windows have been completely changed – they were put through rigorous testing because it is a listed building and they had to look original. The inside has had a big clean and lick of paint. We’ve gone back to the original 1930s colours and we have knocked a few walls to created the new gallery spaces.
I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to be shown around the site just before Christmas. It looked very empty and very clean. I think you have just finished the renovation and it looked like a new floor had just been put down.
Yes. There are new floors and ramps, so that everything is on the same level and accessible. In fact you came at a good time really because it was still in the full phase of the building site, so the next time you come it will be completely different.
When you showed me the basement I saw what looked like large cooling rooms or refrigerators. I assume that was some kind of storage?
That’s right. In the basement we have archive storage and museum storage. We also have smaller storage for photographs and documents as they need to be kept at a constant temperature.
Can you pick out a few of your favourite exhibits from the museum?
I’ll go for one of the oldest ones first. We’ve been really lucky because we’ve had our archaeology collections returned from Sheffield and Doncaster museums. Anything that had been dug up in the Barnsley area has traditionally gone to them because we didn’t have our own storage.
We have some prehistoric tools that were found around Langsett from four to five thousand years ago. They’re really impressive to see and it goes to show that Barnsley’s history goes back much more than just a few hundred years.
We’ve had some signed school shirts donated. I don’t know if you had yours signed Jason?
I did. I still have my signed school tie from my last day at Holgate.
It’s a bit of a right of passage isn’t it. People must do it all over the country, but to have Barnsley stories tied to them is special. We had one donated to us from a man called John who went to Kingstone school and left around 99. He said a lot of the people who signed his shirt, he’s never seen since and so it is that thing about leaving school and moving on.
One of my favourite exhibits though is a pit helmet that was brought in from Royston and it was from the Women Against Pitt Closures groups. It’s a white plastic helmet, with Cole Not Dole stickers on it and it’s been signed 1984 by the women in the group. We’ve been talking to them about possible events over the few years, because next year it will be thirty years since the miner’s strike took place in Barnsley. We have lots of interesting stories that we will explore further next year.
A couple of months, you held an event at The Cooper Gallery in regards to the Slazenger factory. How did that go?
We had around fifty people visit us in the space of three hours. A Slazenger is one of those places where the people still stick together; they have reunions and it was a real community. They made some amazing things there. They made crash helmets, which was new to me. They made tennis balls for Wimbledon, which went through a very rigorous bounce test to make sure that the balls were suitable. We recorded some of their stories as well. You’ll be able to hear their different experiences when you visit the museum.
I work a lot with bands, musicians and music lovers and I can imagine that you’ve come across a lot of local music related memorabilia or stories while you have been curating the museum?
It’s been amazing really. You’ve introduced us to lots of bands that I didn’t personally know about. There are so many bands that have come out of Barnsley, going back to all of the early folk music and the start of the folk club. There lots of interesting stories about where the bands have come from and where they went and hopefully, we will be showing much of that in the new museum.
We’ve got an amazing leather jacket which a few of your readers will have seen already, from Biff Byford of Saxon. That came from Brian Shaughnessy from the band Seventh Son. It was from Saxon’s American tour, there is still a couple of American dimes on the inside pocket and you can see on the inside of the jacket where the tour pass was sewn.
I’m not sure exactly what Brian’s going to wear on stage now. He always wears that jacket. Hope he isn’t going to go topless.
I wanted to ask you about something I saw last year in the entrance space of the front of the town hall. Didn’t I see a suffragette’s banner?
We some amazing things relating to the suffragette movement. We have two or three banners made at the time and one of them is fantastic, it says ‘Barnsley man support the women’s vote’ and another one is the suffragette’s flag. We have some images as well from around 1911 of the Barnsley Suffragettes stood outside the front of The Chronicle offices with their placards.
One of the suffragettes was actually an architect called Celia Wray and she built some houses at Cudworth that are still there.
The museum opens on the Thursday 27th June. When should people get there?
Everybody needs to get to the town hall for 2pm. I won’t say anything more than that. It’s all a surprise, but everybody will be able to get involved in the opening.
2pm? Will the museum staff have a late lie-in every day?
Oh no. I’m sure we’ll all be frantically working up until the last minute, making sure everything is ready, sparkling and clean.
I can imagine that once the museum opens, you’ll get inundated by people wanting to donate objects and tell their stories?
The response so far has been incredible and I think that, like you say, once they see what we haven’t got, people will want to talk to us and we’ll keep on collecting.
If anybody has any objects or stories that they think deserves to be in the museum, then how should they contact Experience Barnsley?
We have twitter pages for both Experience Barnsley and Barnsley Museums and we have a facebook page for Experience Barnsley too.