Photo gallery: Reigniting the burners - TV appearance for Fakenham gas museum
10:45 09 May 2014
© Archant Norfolk 2014
It’s a quirky combination of industrial archaeology and domestic nostalgia - and there is nothing else quite like it in this country.
The Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History is one of the more unusual attractions that Norfolk has to offer, offering visitors a unique look at the inner workings of a former coal-fired gas works as well as displaying some of the first gas appliances made available to housewives and explaining the role of the thousands of by-products of the industry from medicines to explosives.
But now the museum, run by a small group of volunteers, will be able to reach out to a whole new audience after being selected as one of two independent museums run by “unsung museum heroes” to be filmed for a one-off BBC programme to be shown on prime-time Saturday night television.
A BBC2 film crew visited the museum one evening last month after discovering that it was taking part in a country-wide festival aimed at getting more visitors to local heritage sites.
Museums at Night is run by digital cultural publishers Culture24 who encourage venues to run special events on a particular date, in the evening or after-dark. Last year they saw 145,841 visits made to festival events with nearly a third of those made by people new to the venue they visited. More than 4000 visits were made by people who had never been to an arts or heritage venue before.
The Fakenham museum is opening its doors at 7pm on Thursday, May 15 as part of the festival and, after showing visitors round the exhibits, will light the gas streetlamp as it gets dark before volunteer Dr Mike Bridges recites The Lamplighter by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Dr Bridges, who retired as chairman of the trustees of Fakenham Museum of Gas at the end of last year, said they hoped it would put the museum on the map.
“We were very pleased that the BBC wanted to feature a couple of the country’s smaller museums,” he said. “They went down to a museum in Cornwall and then came to us. They spent a lot of time filming myself and Russell Frary, another volunteer, walking in and out of doorways so I don’t know how much air time we will get but we will certainly reach a much wider group of people than we would otherwise be able to.”
The programme will be aired on Saturday, May 17 and viewers will be able to see some of the treasures the gasworks, which is a scheduled ancient monument, and museum hold.
It is the only surviving town gasworks in England and Wales, complete with all equipment used for the manufacture of gas from coal - the impressive cast iron fronted retorts for heating the coal, the condenser, purifiers, and gasholder which would rise and fall depending on the quantity of gas held inside.
It ceased production of gas nearly 50 years ago following the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea and was opened as a museum in 1987 by the Duke of Gloucester after the Norfolk Industrial Archeological Society together with Norfolk Historic Buildings trusts arranged for it to be leased and converted, saving it from demolition.
The fact that it already had a showroom for selling gas cookers and heaters made it a more obvious choice for easy transformation into a museum. It also helped that a gas museum in London closed and sent all its exhibits to Norfolk, as did a museum in Yorkshire.
Dr Bridges said: “There is a national gas museum in Leicestershire but the irony is that it does not have a gasworks.
“This is such an important example of industrial archaeology but it is not just about the history of gas - there were so many by-products of the industry.
“You name it you can make it from a by-product - in fact 3000 different products can be made from tar to medicine, plastics, dyes, fertilisers and then there are the ammoniacal substances which are used in cleaning products as well as nitric acid which you can make into explosives. The gas industry was critical in providing raw materials for waging war.”
Aside from the domestic appliances on display there are also the calorific value measuring devices which calculated how efficient and clean the gas was that was being produced. There are gas meters and all the tools engineers would need to service the appliances.
It must have been a terrific day for any housewife to have her first hot water heater fitted or first gas cooker.
Dr Bridges said: “We do tend to get more of the older generation visiting and often a wife would say to her husband, “we had one like that when we were first married”. People often say they are not sure what they are going to get out of a visit here but they always say when they leave how interesting it was.”
Displays on local history and the once-famous local printing industry as well as the area’s involvement in the First World War add further interest.
The museum is normally only open on Thursday mornings from September to May and Thursdays and Fridays 10.30am to 3.30pm in June, July and August.
But Dr Bridges and the rest of the team hope their few minutes of fame may reignite viewers’ interest in their local heritage and encourage people to hot-foot it down to their little piece of industrial history.
* The museum will feature in the programme BBC Arts at Museums at Night presented by BBC arts editor Will Gompertz on BBC2 at 7pm on Saturday, May 17.
* For more information visit www.fakenhamgasmuseum.co.uk or www.culture24.org.uk.
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