FROM: Catterall, S. (2005) 'Public History Review Essay. "Otherness" plus the three Cs minus Orwell: "The Wigan Pier Experience"', in Labour History Review (70) 1: 103 -- 110.
The Lancashire town of Wigan has a symbolic significance in English history, standing for industrialisation and all the social squalor it produced. This can be seen in the formula of the 3 Cs -- 'Coal, Cotton and Canals' (103".)
The 'Wigan Pier Experience' is an industrial museum with several sites. It was opened in the Eighties as part of the urban regeneration policy of the Conservative government. These initiatives were typically 'funded from several sources, including central government, local authorities, public industry and private business, together with money from Europe and the English Tourist Board' (104). The 'pier', was in fact a coal chute in a canal, given an ironic name referring to seaside holidays.
The museum depicts life in Wigan in the early 1900s. It includes depictions of figures of popular culture associated with Wigan, such as George Formby. Workers' holidays to nearby beaches are depicted. Industrial life is also depicted, via an exhibition about coal-mining, 'engineering, iron and steel, textiles and nail making' (104). Some idea of the context of the Britain at the time is provided, and there is a collection of contemporary street photographs. Visitors are also allowed to role play in a reconstructed Victorian school. A cotton mill is also used to house an exhibition, although Wigan was not particularly one of the main centres of the cotton industry. The workers are depicted in a photograph as 'mill lasses sporting the fixed smiles and starched clean uniforms much favoured by the mill owners who took them for publicity purposes' (105). Other memorabilia are on display based on street photographs and other items, and there are interactive displays for the younger visitors. Although there is a 'strong educative ethos' (106) which includes outings for schoolchildren, there is no particular overall theme in the 'Experience'. There is also 'the ubiquitous gift shop' (106).
The 'Experience' was seen as a typical example of the Heritage Industry by critics including Hewison, picking on the usual themes of nostalgia and commercialism as a substitute for a proper analysis of modernity. Other critics have stressed the lack of politics in the historical depictions, especially themes of 'working class struggle, trade unions and the conflict between capital and labour' (106). Hewison's specific criticisms include an unrealistic emphasis on holidays and leisure, and a sanitisation of work conditions in collieries. Catterall points out that it would have been difficult to depict a mining disaster, and that Edwardian music hall somgs in particular could offer remiders of these events, but it is true there are several minor historical inaccuracies.
In particular, Hewison may have missed the central joke about the pier. He may have 'shared with Orwell a tendency to take his observations and the people he met too seriously' (107). The concept probably expresses self-mockery, perhaps as a means of escaping poor conditions.
The contrasts that Hewison spotted between heritage museums and the visible signs of industrial decline and dereliction have disappeared in modern Wigan, which has been redeveloped in the conventional way, to include a shopping mall, a new stadium and new retail outlets. There are still social problems, focused on 'crime and drugs, tensions artising with immigrants, indebtedness, disintegrating public services and poor conditions of employment' (108). The Heritage Industry now seems to support New Labour and its 'Third Way' -- 'an agenda of urban rejuvenation embracing a sense of local identity' (108).
One interesting issue is why the 'Experience' ignores the novel by George Orwell. His famous visit actually lies after the period being depicted, but there is also a 'local irritability' about Orwell's commentary, and national criticism as well. As a local journalist put it in 1984: 'the people of Wigan still smart over the way George Orwell -- "a lanky snob in a mac" -- wrote about its smelly and dirty lodgings over a tripe shop... nearly half a century ago' (quoted by Catterall, page 109). Citing Orwell might well call up the old industrial legacy which is unwelcome in the turn to Heritage.
Orwell's depiction of Wigan is genuinely controversial -- for example he seems to have ignored 'opportunities for leisure, the continuing influence of religion and... the role of women... the growth of a professional class... retail developments and public amenities' (109). It was true that there was considerable social deprivation and lot of unemployed miners in the 1930s. Overall, interpretations of Orwell would be complex [far too complex for a heritage site?].
The 'Experience' does help to make history more accessible to a wider audience, and just might encourage further inquiry. It certainly is a popular site for school and college parties. However, it is largely unfocused. While locals may use the exhibits to think over their own past experiences, other visitors might have a 'sense [of otherness] emboldened' (110). The 'indistinct aims... [can prevent]... an overall impression of the place' (110) [including, presumably, to an organised challenge to stereotypes and prejudices]. Finally, Orwell may not be able to be ignored for much longer, since his novel is still associated with Wigan 'throughout the world' (110).
In a postscript, Catterall notes that Wigan Pier is to be redeveloped in line with a plan to develop a whole cultural quarter. Some attractions will close, others will stay but will be refurbished. The mill 'will be converted into a mix of commercial, social and residential space, including luxury loft apartments', while the museum will be 'replaced by a 500 seat live performance then you, complete with café, a craft workshop, restaurants and bar' (111). Apparently, these developments have 'reignited the debate over Wigan's past, present and future and the town's ongoing quest for modernity' (111). [So this is interesting comment on the future of the Heritage Industry -- to become part of a cultural quarter and urban regeneration more generally, possibly losing even the tenuous connection with historical reality reported for the earlier examples].
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