Mike Benson, a veteran of the British steel industry, began his career at the Teesside steelworks at the age of 16. During his 28 years in the industry, he experienced vast improvements in safety and processes, and enjoyed the fierce camaraderie among his teammates. He has also witnessed the industry fall victim to cheaper foreign suppliers, much like the coal industry.
Benson’s heritage career started at the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, progressing through folk and local history heritage projects to various local museums. His appointment as director of the National Coal Mining Museum (NCMM) comes during a low point for the UK coal industry.
Taylor Heyman: How will your experience in the steel industry influence your leadership of the museum?
Mike Benson: I think there are a lot of shared experiences between steel workers and miners. The camaraderie and graft involved, the physical elements and starting at the age of 16. There is shared learning from the nationalisation of the steel works and mines and the way the government of the day led and recovered from that.
Traditionally, museums, like mining and steelwork were, are quite hierarchical with distant trustees and a distant director. What we are trying to do at the NCMM is turn everything on its head and put the decision-making and values of the museum where the work is happening.
TH: What are you aiming to achieve as director?
MB: It’s about building on what has gone on before, but what is absolutely critical is keeping the museum relevant and up-to-date. We must stay away from nostalgia and focus instead on the values of mining.
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These are camaraderie, courage, hard work, teamwork and a democratic workforce. Those values are as important today as they were 200 years ago. The museum will be viewing the world through those lenses; romantic or not.
TH: What are your plans for the future of the museum?
MB: We’re going to stop the bus and from trustees to museum staff and volunteers, are going to re-evaluate what we stand for as a museum and what we want to achieve together.
TH: Kellingley Colliery was the last of the British deep-cast coal mines to close, a victim of cheaper coal production overseas. How do you feel about the end of the UK coal industry?
MB: It was the week before I started that the closure occurred. It is humbling and illustrates our responsibility to keep the values of the folk involved as a symbol of Kellingley and other mines. I recognise the enormity of making sure we do a great job in including recent history in the everyday life of the museum.
So far we have taken possession of the Kellingley memorial statue, we have the last tonne of coal extracted from the site and we’ve captured photographs and memories from the miners there. It really is similar to connect the journey of steelwork in the UK and mining. I haven’t quite got my head around how we will deal with the final closures and keep them from drifting into nostalgia.
I have been inspired by other mining museums such as the mercury mining museum in Italy which still rings the bell for shift change-over, and the museum and surrounding shops still work to the rhythm of mining life. We have been grappling with how to accurately present the realities of the industry without succumbing to nostalgia.
TH: Do you have plans to work with institutions overseas and in the UK to share the museum’s resources and learning?
MB: The museum already has connections with other museums abroad, including China. The connections exist, but we need to have a think about how we can best use these connections for the benefit of our visitors.
TH: You have ex-miners working in the museum; will this change?
MB: I started off my museum career as a guide at the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum. Some of the guides there had grandparents who were miners and I think it is fantastic that the stories are told by people with mining heritage.
It is critical to the mining museum that we have ex-miners telling their stories. The challenge is that in ten to 20 years’ time, there won’t be the folks there to call on to do that. So we’re thinking hard about how we keep that connection and authenticity into the future.
TH: What do you think about the health of today’s coal mining market? In 50 years, will coal mining be confined to museums?
MB: I think we need to take a broader view of the matter. I am talking with limited knowledge, but they are telling me that there are power stations seven miles from the museum that are going to be operational for the next ten years and yet it is cheaper to bring coal from abroad.
Using the steel example, we were making the safest steel in the world; the reality is that in other places where they are making steel it’s not safe for human beings to be working. People have fought to create a safe environment for UK workers in these sectors, I think most people would agree that’s a good thing, yet we are merrily buying commodities in from other places where wages are low and fingers, thumbs, arms and legs will be getting lost, or worse.
When people talk about commercials, I think the conversation needs to be much broader about us as human beings. We talk about nationhood and how England came to be and within that conversation you would talk about coal. We now have to start thinking globally, if the commercials were considered alongside other factors, I don’t think it would be sensible to import coal from halfway around the world and from unsafe conditions.
I don’t want to be all holier-than-thou but this is the reality. The government has to make proper investment in infrastructure and technologies to power stations using fossil fuels. If this had been done with any sense of purpose in the eighties, we may not be in this position now.