Debate, definition and much dithering

Perspectives on Industrial Archaeology
August 31, 2001

This beautifully produced book was issued to honour the International Congress on the Conservation of the Industrial Heritage, which returned to Britain in 2000, years after its inaugural congress. Its different perspectives on industrial archaeology (IA) come from nine contributors. One joint paper is by two consultants; three contributors are, or were, teachers in higher or further education; three may best be described as "heritage managers"; and only one is or was museum based. This is the book's editor, Neil Cossons, director of the Science Museum until his recent elevation to chairman of English Heritage, and a pioneer of IA in Britain. This book deserves a wide readership among (mainly amateur) industrial archaeologists and other (often professional) archaeologists, historians, museum keepers and all of us who worry about whether the full range of vocational, "industrial" skills are being taught in schools and universities.

These perspectives are well reflected by the authors, several of whom clearly consider conservation of industrial heritage as the most important task for IA today, while others investigate its different links, whether as part of archaeology or history. Barrie Trinder, in the best contribution to the volume, gives us a scholarly history of the movement in its 20th-century context. He points out how British jingoism lessened as soon as IA became more international and that, even if the phrase IA first appeared in English print in 1955, it had earlier appeared in Portuguese in 1896 and Belgian French in 1950. Angus Buchanan, another leading proponent of IA, gives a fascinating, sometimes autobiographical discussion of its British origins. Keith Falconer, in another interesting paper, surveys the changing ways in which IA has been recorded. Anthony Streeten covers the issue that those responsible for this particular volume see as central, the question of how better to conserve existing industrial buildings. Among the 16 fine colour plates is, in Streeten's words, "the most significant industrial structures at risk in Britain", the appropriately named Ditherington Mill, which one can see on every shopping trip to Shrewsbury. It is high time dithering stopped. We must find another use for that building.

The last three contributors cover more specific issues. Stafford Linsley's is a fine regional study of IA in the Northeast; Mark Watson's documents the impressive recent work in Scotland, which has showed how to conserve important textile mills by converting them to urban housing. The final paper, by Michael Bailey and John Glithero, is an IA report on the surviving Rocket locomotive, long preserved in the Science Museum. This documents how close to an Irish shovel (with both new handle and blade) this may have become, through successive modification, whether in rail or museum service. But this paper summarises a longer 2000 publication and is much less easy to appraise here.

The real problem of what exactly IA is is nicely exposed in this book. Buchanan gives his favourite definition, while admitting that no final one "was ever achieved", that it is "the investigation, survey, record and preservation of industrial monuments". Those here involved with the Rocket instead take IA to be only the first three, by carefully separating IA from history and engineering. But surely IA is part of history? Just as historians of science should use archives, books, localities and "manufacts", so historians of the "industrial period" must use the same range of evidence. But the contributors oscillate over whether IA is part of the mainstream of history, or is part of archaeology, or is really only conservation. The problem of separating IA from history is occasionally exposed in this book. Figure 8:2 (an archival drawing of the Rocket ) is reproduced without full details of source. The Frenchman writing about Tyneside in 1799 actually visited it in 1784. In my limited experience of dealing with IA, the problem of how to integrate manuscript with "manufact" has always been central. In one excavation, what was being sought was never found because of ignorance of the documentary record, while in another, the same neglect of documents allowed the importance of a unique site proposed for conservation to be denied.

The paper by Trinder, who clearly sees IA as part of history, raises the biggest question. He gives a wonderfully effective demonstration of some crass ignorance of industrial history by a former eminent academic historian, whom he is right to accuse of "technological illiteracy". But he is then badly let down, just once, by either his editor (or more likely the editor's spellchecker) when his inventors Cort and Cranage get transmuted, in the vital explanatory footnote, to the "innovations of cart and cranage" (my spellchecker says this is "carnage"). Such ignorance of, and attitudes to, industrial history, then and now (however caused), are, I believe, a central reason why IA has failed to make a scholarly impact in British universities. This book has helped me to understand this. It has also explained how IA can be at once so popular, but so notably fail to make an impression in the academic world. The villain of the 1993 novel The Surleighwick Effect (which gets more autobiographical every time I read it) was the mocked professor of industrial archaeology at Surleighwick (which university he went on to help close down...). Buchanan, in another contribution I much enjoyed, also refers to this bigger problem. He asks why has the history of technology (or industrial history, whatever it should be called) been so neglected in British universities. He refers in this to another paper in which he discusses the vexed question in volume 22 of History of Technology . It will be interesting to see what reaction this produces. The volume under review has certainly contributed to this important debate.

Hugh Torrens is emeritus professor of the history of science and technology, Keele University.

Perspectives on Industrial Archaeology

Editor - Neil Cossons
ISBN - 1 900747 31 6
Publisher - Science Museum, London
Price - £19.95
Pages - 176

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