The Diary: Exhibition reveres all things Barnsley

One display is this working model of the poacher being caught
One display is this working model of the poacher being caught
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It was an idea first suggested seven years ago but, in a way, this is a project which has been almost 1,000 years in the making.

This summer, the first ever museum dedicated to the history and people of Barnsley opens.

And, while it has perhaps taken some time arriving – the town was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 – it seems the £4.3 million centre has been worth the wait.

Where else, after all, can one find the leather jackets worn by rock band Saxon nestled next to a hoard of Roman coins found in Wombwell? At what other visitor attraction could a child crawl through a 19th century mine shaft at one side of a room, and listen to the comic Charlie Williams at the other?

And, in which other museum, can one see the world’s first ‘modern’ fire engine (invented here in 1790) next to a bicycle once owned by Albert Hirst, the famous Black Pudding King of Cheapside, renowned for his chops and his pies?

More? There’s music provided by Grimethorpe Colliery band, a poem contributed by Ian McMillian and video footage of Barnsley FC training in the 1930s.

There’s a build-your-own viaduct to honour Penistone’s famous structure and a tin of biscuits brought home by a Barnsley boy who had survived the Battle of the Somme in World War I.

“The sheer variety of the things we have on show is absolutely astonishing,” says Doctor John Tanner, who has coordinated the whole project on behalf of Barnsley Council. “And, for that, we have the people of Barnsley to thank. This entire museum is a testament to them. Ninety per cent of our artefacts have been contributed by the public. It is a museum for the people created by the people.”

More of that shortly. For now, some facts.

Experience Barnsley, as it is called, takes up 800 square foot under Barnsley Town Hall and has largely been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund. It has transformed what was previously a largely unused space and will, when open in June, create a dozen new jobs. A cafe and tourist information centre will be on site. A study room and archive service will allow scholars and amateur historians to access any one of 10,000 documents stored (but not necessarily on display) there.

And a special exhibition room, with high-level security and atmosphere controls, will mean top national exhibitions can be brought to the town for the first time. Artefacts on famous son Tommy Taylor from the National Football Museum have already been lined up.

Above all else, it will be completely free entry.

“It’s going to be an absolutely fantastic facility,” says Dr Tanner, a Lancastrian, now living in Penistone. “It’s astonishing we’ve never had anything like it before because Barnsley is an area so rich in history – over the years it’s been known for everything from its goose pies to glass, mining to linen.

“To bring that together so people can share, experience and enjoy it is critical. It’s great to give the town a place where we can celebrate its achievements.”

It is something which could not have been done without the people of Barnsley, either.

The first problem encountered after the idea for a museum was approved in 2007 was, well, the town didn’t really have a collection of historical artefacts.

“We had the usual archive documents and some archeological finds which were all stored in Sheffield and Doncaster,” explains Jemma Conway, community heritage curator with Barnsley Council’s museums service.

“That included Roman coins, Bronze Age tools and medieval tiles from the priory at Monk Bretton. But we didn’t have any artefacts which told Barnsley stories.”

So, they asked people of the town to bring their own.

“We basically said if you have it in your home and you think it would be of interest, bring it in,“ explains Jemma. “But we could never have imagined how good the response would be.”

Among artefacts brought in were football rattles from the ’50s, a Littleworth Majorettes outfit from the ’80s, and a pony’s hoof recovered from the remains of England’s worst pit disaster, in which 388 men died after a series of explosions at Oaks Colliery, near Stairfoot in 1866.

“A woman actually saw that hoof in Whitby several years ago and brought it because she knew how important it was to Barnsley’s history.” explains Jemma. “It’s been in her home ever since until she brought it to us.”

And now? Now the builders are racing against the clock to make sure everything is ready for opening day on June 27.

The Town Hall – built 1933, as the museum tells us – has been cleaned to make sure it’s at its most white, and Jemma and John are doing their last bits of research.

“We’ve become like encyclopedias on Barnsley since we started,” he says.

He points at one last mini-exhibition as we leave. A map of Barnsley recreated as a Tuscan hill village by the architect Will Alsop. “Hopefully, the museum has a place in that future too,” he notes.

Opening details and further information at wwww.barnsleylive.co.uk