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Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes

Founded: 1976        Governance: Public body        Scope: Local history    Visited: Autumn 2016

In common with many small towns across England, Hawes used to have a railway station, and this building, helpfully extended and remodelled, is what houses the Dales Countryside Museum, administered by  the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and thus rather better-resourced than the volunteer-organised museums in the towns round about it. One might therefore reasonably demand a bit more of its display standards and, thankfully, this is what one finds. 

I arrived a minute or two before the museum was due to open, and so poked around outside, discovering on this damp morning a forlorn and gently rusting steam engine, a disassembled mill wheel which the museum was trying to raise the money to re-erect, and the rather sprucer railway carriages which have a new incarnation as an activity centre for child visitors. Inside the building, though, was a different matter. 

The museum has decided to root its exploration of Dales life in the material things of the landscape, in Stone, Water, Earth, Metal, and Wood, and right by the entrance desk you are introduced to these primal themes in the form of five monumental pillars containing relevant objects. I like this kind of approach - it's clear and definite and allows visitors without much time to look at absolutely everything to apprehend 'the story'. From here you follow the trail around to the right into a lead mine - I had no idea how important lead mining had been to the Dales, an industry which collapsed in the mid-1800s to the extent that the local population halved over the course of about a decade after 1870 - and the various crafts and services which facilitated village life, and up into a set of displays about farming, helpfully contrasting the way things used to be organised with the current situation. I hadn't quite appreciated how useful a slaughtered pig can be. The element I found most moving was the mocked-up surgery of Dr Bainbridge, first member of his farming family to have any kind of education and who qualified as a doctor at Durham in the very early 1900s, then returning to his home village where he spent the rest of his life as the only medic for miles: general practitioner, surgeon, pharmacist and midwife rolled into one. On the door hung his graduate's gown. God bless you, Isaac Bainbridge, I thought, grumpy bugger though you looked.

Completely separate from all that was an art installation, words that usually make my heart sink a bit, but which turned out to be splendid. You enter through a dark passageway to the sound of whispered words and a slow, insistent drumbeat into a great space punctuated with small illuminated arrangements of stone, tree branches, and bones, and, against the curving wall by which you entered, a lit-up circle of animal skin, or what appears to be animal skin. This is called 'Nature, Skin, and Bone', a collaboration between a sculptor and a light artist, and I found it an affecting evocation of the human relationship with these primal things: it was like being plunged back into the mental landscape of the Stone Age, of human beings trying to make sense of the world around them and its threats and inescapable facts with, perhaps, half-glimpsed and barely-understood rituals and acts. Of course it's only on for a few weeks, but I'm glad the Museum is hosting such events.

Dales Countryside Museum, HawesDales Countryside Museum, HawesDales Countryside Museum, Hawes
Dales Countryside Museum, HawesDales Countryside Museum, Hawes
Dales Countryside Museum, HawesDales Countryside Museum, Hawes
Dales Countryside Museum, HawesDales Countryside Museum, Hawes
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