Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Britain's Main Street USA: An Analytical Tour of Beamish Open Air Museum Part 5

Re-enactors are employed or invited by Beamish Museum to wander the grounds, leading to the wonderfully immersive sight of seeing a Victorian lady shopping from store to store with a basket under her arm, or turning a corner in the Pit Village the come across three Victorian children racing each other on their bikes. That's right - children! After dressing up in period clothing, they are seemingly given bicycles and toys with which to play with throughout the museum. To them, it must be a spectacular playground; to the guests they add an unparalleled realism.

Other events throughout the year invite various specialised groups to Beamish. When I was there, they were holding the Beamish Great North Steam Fair which allowed me the opportunity to see dozens of traction engines and steam rollers (and I mean real steam), roaming the museum driven by their private owners.

Other events include;
  • Beamish Agricultural Show with demonstrations of ploughing, country crafts, agricultural machinery and livestock classes
  • Easter Celebrations with egg painting, scavenger hunts and religious services
  • A Georgian Fair with travelling fairground rides and attractions
  • Harvest Festival
  • Sports Competitions including cricket, football (soccer) and quoits
  • Regular choir and band visits
  • Topic focuses such as toys, machinery or cookery
  • And of course a traditional Victorian Christmas season
Perhaps the most Hollywood influence I came across was apparent in their upcoming Halloween offering: the plan to turn Beamish into the 'UNliving Museum of the North', complete with demon dentist, fortune teller, ghost stories and encouragement to don costumes, more akin to Knott's Scary Farm than a museum - but which will no doubt prove to be a success.

Food is available at the entrance 'Coffee Shop', Town 'Tea Rooms' and 'The Sun Inn', Home Farm 'The Cart Shed', and Village's 'Pitman's Pantry', candies at the Town's 'Jubilee Sweet Shop', while souvenirs are sold only at the entrance gift shop and Town 'Stationer's Shop'. Smoking is not permitted indoors, and while dogs are allowed inside the museum grounds they are not allowed inside the buildings (with exception to assistance dogs). Induction loop systems are installed at a large number of exhibits for those hard of hearing.

I cannot overstate how impressed I was with Beamish Museum. In a country in which service pales in comparison to its American equivalent and themed entertainment, immersion and storytelling is largely dismissed in favour of thrills, Beamish stands out with its Disney-quality operation, so much that I wonder whether a Beamish executive has consciously emulated Disney's practices to great effect. Every employee I came across was infallibly polite, friendly and warm, offering up information about the surroundings and their role, and always saying hello as you entered the room they were in. Outside, a number of employees would wave as the packed trams and busses as they passed by, just as the conductors aboard Disney's railroad do.

Despite a relatively small number of trash cans, I did not spot one piece of trash in the common areas of Beamish Museum. More thorough searching did uncover some trash in out of the way corners such as within the holes of dormant machinery, but this is no worse than similar findings at Disney parks. I never actually saw an employee pick up litter which makes me wonder why Beamish is so lucky in this regard when British theme parks are often deluged with discarded wrappers and paper cups. Perhaps it is the older audience; without thrills, the serene museum does not attract many teenagers or young adults (some would say most likely to litter). But beyond this, I think that the locals of the area feel a significant emotional connection and pride in Beamish: just as Disneyland locals will pick up trash that litters 'their park', many Beamish visitors do the same.

Nevertheless, there were a few differences to Disney. Attention to Show was predominantly very impressive, all the more heightened by its valley location surrounded by forested countryside miraculously devoid even of power lines and the genuine buildings meaning fire exit signs aren't required, but exceptions did exist. Whilst a boiler or some other modern contraption was hidden behind a fence, a modern van was parked next to it. The toy filled rear garden of a nearby house could be glimpsed at the edge of the Georgian landscape, and at one point (at the Farm) a public road actually passed right through the museum, although it was seldom used. Remarkably, this meant somebody could very easily enter Beamish without paying (there were no ticket checks here), and even a number of public footpaths passed through the grounds - unthinkable at a Disney park.

Even the occasional signposts are appropriate to the setting. This style of sign would be commonly seen along canal waterways.

Being a museum, Beamish hopes to educate and inform, so whilst the environment and costumes were accurate, when the employees opened their mouths it was most often from a 21st century perspective, and no taboo existed in discussing the outside world, discussing what an employee was up to when they finished work that night, or even answering my questions about the behind the scenes operations that went into running Beamish. There were however occasional exceptions to this. The printer would not hand a newly printed flyer to a young boy but would to a young girl, explaining with his tongue in his cheek that little girls look with their eyes, little boys look with their fingers and ink would end up all over. The dentist compliment a guest on her teeth, surmising that they must be porcelain and her assumed husband must be very well to do in being able to afford those for her. A faux miner asked me if I'd had a good shift when I handed in my helmet after descending the mine.

One significant tonal change did manifest itself compared to Main Street USA: while Main Street USA presented a rose-tinted, candy coated view of America's past, where everyone is a friend, each business booms and realities of unemployment, crime and hardship are exorcised, Beamish takes no shame in presenting a seemingly sensationalised (although no doubt accurate) view of the past, focusing on the dangers, peculiarities and titillating taboos of the era. A ride aboard the Pockerly Waggonway was accompanied by the tale of tenant miner who, after failing to mine the required amount of coal for his landlord, would be fired, lose his house, resort to thievery, arrested and then executed and displayed as a warning. The dentist freely divulged tales of gruesome dental practices, and recounted how false teeth would be inherited down the family - so that if someone of the time said you had your mother's smile, it might very well be literal. Stories in the mine made no secrets of the difficult working conditions, resulting health problems and numerous accidents and collapses. More than once I came across parents or grandparents telling young children "we didn't have computers when we were your age, we were put to work" or some similar comment about freezing tin baths, outdoor toilets or the school cane.

My only criticism of the museum was the occasionally bad guest control (many similar criticisms are levelled against Disney). Queues for the transportation or mines were often unregulated, and whilst the guests generally organised the queues themselves (they are British after all!), confusion occasionally arose. At the dentist, one elderly couple found themselves fumbling against the direction of the crowd after understandably missing the awkwardly placed 'Exit Only, Entrance Next Door' plaque beneath the door they came in through (I suspect its positioning was to minimize its impact on the immersion).

The museum has a number of plans for expansion. Already under construction when I visited was a backstreet, coal-fired fish and chip shop in the Pit Village, whilst a Photographic Studio in the town had recently been trialled and was set to return. Other plans include a bakery, shopping arcade, dispensing chemist, fire station, police station, gasworks and early cinema, as well as more cottages, pubs, rail stock and so on.

There are a number of reasons I liken what is presented at Beamish to a British Main Street. The most obvious of course is the time period: just as Main Street USA diverts a couple of decades each side of its 1901 setting, so too does Beamish average at a turn of the century date amongst its timeline which stretches from 1825 to 1913. Second is what is represented: many of the shops, houses and businesses included correlate directly with those on Disneyland's introductory land. Goofy's Candy would be sold in a corner sweet shop, guest dining at the Plaza Inn would be transplanted into the Pub serving traditional rural dishes, and guests would shop for souvenirs within the Co-Op. But third, and most importantly, is the feeling of the place: I have never lived in a town or village like Beamish, but I imagine I could have. Despite the sensationalized information peppered throughout the museum, Beamish is without a doubt a place you think you would like to live amongst. Beamish has created a nationally ideal community that I would suspect resonates within any Brit, where mentions of Queen, Country and Empire tug at the heartstrings and infuse each subject with a glow of patriotic pride - even, bizarrely, within an Americophile, British-republican like myself.

If Disneyland had ever been built in the United Kingdom, it is this that we would see: cobblestone streets laced with tram tracks and trafficked by penny-farthings, omnibuses and puttering motorcars. Where instead of every day being the Fourth of July, every day is Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee - June 20th 1897 - as revealed by the banners of Union Jacks strung between the lamp posts. A red telephone box on the corner leads to the sweet shop, the newspaper office, the bank, the garage, the Co-Op, the tea shop, and the local pub. The brass band would play 'God Save the Queen' from the iron bandstand surrounded by a bed of roses, poppies and poseys, gazing up the Victorian street to the stronghold of King Arthur Castle: a fortress hiding St. George's Dragon within its dungeons, and which is perched upon pure, shining white cliffs reminiscent of Dover's.

All of these thoughts and considerations revolve around one key question: with Disneyland being so quintessentially American, just what would Disneyland have been like if Walt Disney was born somewhere else - disregarding the many complications and imagining the same capitalist opportunities and industry developments had prompted Walt's pleasure park to be constructed within another nation's boundaries and based on another nation's culture? I imagine a British Main Street not in expectation of it ever becoming a reality (though every British theme park must be crazy for not building this already), but to prove that such a localised reinterpretation of Disney's Main Street USA must be possible in most, if not all, countries. I am not so arrogant as to think Britain's history is the richest - it is just the one I am most familiar with. Any other country must provide a wealth of material to replicate this conversion, and provide to locals of internationally located parks the same feelings of homecoming as Main Street USA provides to Americans.

What would a Main Street Japan, Main Street France, Main Street Hong Kong or Main Street China really look like? I would love to hear from other international Disney fans what a Main Street would be like for their country; Beamish is certainly a great example of what a Main Street Great Britain could be.

Beamish Museum's website can be found at

Britain's Main Street USA: An Analytical Tour of Beamish Open Air Museum
Jump to: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

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