Jayne Dowle: Now the South’s plundering our cultural gems

Experience Barnsley's Emily Chalkley with 'L'Ecolier' and 'La Polonaise' by Jean Baptiste Greuze , two of a number of works on show at their new exhibition, 'Meet the Harveys' which aims to inform visitors more about one of the towns most influential and generous families. Picture Scott Merrylees
Experience Barnsley's Emily Chalkley with 'L'Ecolier' and 'La Polonaise' by Jean Baptiste Greuze , two of a number of works on show at their new exhibition, 'Meet the Harveys' which aims to inform visitors more about one of the towns most influential and generous families. Picture Scott Merrylees
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So much for the Northern Powerhouse – our region is being stripped of its cultural and historical currency.

WE’RE lucky in Barnsley. Our town has a fantastic museum in the shape of Experience Barnsley. This welcoming institution pulls off an amazing feat: bringing the past of a post-industrial town alive without resorting to nostalgia and cliché.

Later this year, the Vikings are coming, as a travelling exhibition from the Jorvik centre in York. The curators have a knack of choosing relevant and popular themes and making them accessible to all ages.

That’s not all. On top of this treasure in the Town Hall, we have a range of interesting heritage locations, including Cannon Hall, a wonderful 18th century stately pile surrounded by acres of rolling parkland; Elsecar, where you will find the only working Newcomen Beam steam engine to remain on its original site in the world; the Cooper Gallery, stuffed to the rafters with new art and historical collections and Worsbrough Mill, a working corn mill set in a country park where rare birds soar high above ancient industrial remains.

Barnsley Metropolitan Borough might get a lot of things wrong, but it usually gets it right when it comes to supporting and promoting our local history. It is no secret that central Government cash for cultural activities has been slashed.

Over some very tough years though, BMBC has found ways to make these attractions not only survive, but thrive, through a mixture of judicious public funding, commercial enterprise and a dedicated network of volunteers offering support to paid staff.

However, while I feel proud of our flagship heritage industry, I am concerned that other towns and cities in the North of England are not faring as well.

There is a nasty cultural agenda gathering pace in Great Britain; the museums, galleries and cultural institutions of London are flourishing while the North is being not only left behind, but raided for its treasures.

Can you believe that more than 300,000 photographic items are being transferred from the National Media Museum in Bradford to the V&A in London? Despite 27,000 people signing a petition to keep the work in West Yorkshire, and despite local MPs and councillors mounting a sustained and vociferous campaign against the move, the trustees of the Science Museum Group have made up their collective mind: the works must go South.

The justification? There’s a plan for the Bradford museum to be rebranded in order to focus on science and technology.

Who wants this? Who knows?

Bradford has developed a fantastic international reputation for film, recognised by Unesco. Yet this is being dismantled. The Bradford Film Festival, renowned by directors and film buffs and frequented by Hollywood stars such as Colin Firth, was cancelled last year.

What really galls though is that this latest course of action has been decided by the museum’s trustees in London, with the views and opinions of Yorkshire people not taken into consideration. No wonder one local Bradford councillor has called the decision “an appalling act of cultural vandalism”.

Even a cultural critic on The Times, Richard Morrison, has derided the plan as “Londoncentric nonsense”. He’s right. Almost everyone on the Science Museums Group Trust is based in London or the South East, including Lord Grade, the former chairman of the BBC, and Dame Fiona Woolf, who was once Lord Mayor of London.

What understanding does this elite have of the interests and attitudes of us in the North? What comprehension do such people have of how a visit to a museum can inspire the life of a local child on a school trip, and set that youngster off on a path they never dreamed of? Or indeed, enrich a whole city which deserves a chance? What of all the studies showing that cultural regeneration can have positive effects which go beyond mere visitor numbers?

And what, may I ask, of the Northern Powerhouse? If the North of England is supposed to be competing on equal terms with the South, how on earth can this decision be justified? Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has been very quiet on this matter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If it is to work as anything more than a thought in Chancellor George Osborne’s head, the Northern Powerhouse must respect what we can offer.

What is happening in Bradford goes entirely against this. And it’s not only Bradford: in Kirklees, the Tolson Museum Oakwell Hall, Red House Museum, Bagshaw Museum and Dewsbury Museum, are all under consideration for closure. Countless small museums are literally crumbling to dust while this Government turns a blind eye.

Strip the North of its cultural and historical currency – bearing in mind that in some places history is all we have left – and leave us with what? A fast train link to London and business parks full of call centres? A future workforce with nothing in their heads except a grudging GCSE in general science, and no comprehension of beauty, art or history? A lot of empty buildings which were once stuffed with fascinating items and amazing stories?

I don’t want that to be my generation’s only legacy to the world.