Beamish – The Living Museum of the North

Beamish is a different kind of museum, rather than being exhibits in cases in a building, the buildings are the museum, along with the transport and artefacts. This museum dedicated to “ordinary people” has shops, houses, schools and workplaces from a range of time periods.

The bulk of the museum is set in the 1900s, with a 1900s town, pit village and Colliery. But since I had last visited as a child there have been a number of expansions, with a 1940s farm, 1950s street and 1820s Georgian section. To travel between the different areas of the site you can walk or ride on a bus or tram. There is a specially adapted heritage bus for those for which the high step into the old vehicles is unsuitable.

A 1900s town scene with tram and motor repair shop

The museum staff all wear the appropriate clothing for the time period they are in. But they don’t pretend to be acting as real Victorians, but copying the lifestyle of that time. For example, in the pit village, they were making rag rugs and in the town, they were explaining how the coal fire worked. And in the shops you can buy a handmade sausage roll or pint of beer in the pub using contactless payment.

The inspiration behind the Beamish museum was a trip to a Scandinavian folk museum. The founder Dr Frank Atkinson realised that the North East was dramatically changing and that the region was losing its industrial heritage. So he set about making a new museum to “illustrate vividly” the way of life of ordinary folk.

One thing I found fascinating about the site is that many of the buildings have been dismantled from their original locations around the North East and rebuilt on the Beamish site. For example, the front of the Freemason’s hall was moved from Sunderland. The rest of the building is a reproduction based on photographs of the original building and updated to modern building standards.

It is a physically large museum. We spent about 6 hrs at the museum and did not have chance to see the farm or Georgian area. The current layout would need about 2 days to cover.

However, the 1950s town is being expanded with a cinema and outdoor games and the 1820s cottage industry is also gaining a pottery, blacksmiths and tavern. So perhaps a revisit in a few years would be worthwhile. The tickets do give you a full year’s entrance but you do need to book a free timeslot on the days you wish to visit.

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