Teesside prides itself on an association with industry, whether that be through the discoveries of Bolckow and Vaughan in the nineteenth century, the dominance of Dorman Long throughout the twentieth century, or the influence of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) after the Second World War. Industry moulded Teesside into a thriving region, with communities emerging via expanding labour markets. Dormanstown, for instance, was founded in 1920 for the sole purpose of housing workers of nearby Dorman Long steelworks. The fates of such communities are interwoven with that of the iron and steel industry, including its failings. In 2015, after years of broader industrial decline, one of the last remaining steel employers in the region, along with its world-leading blast furnace technology, collapsed. The downfall of SSI sent shockwaves through Teesside, decimating 2000 direct jobs. Thousands more were undoubtedly affected too, as suppliers and contractors were no longer required, while income streams for local businesses – based upon regional employment – dropped significantly. More importantly, communities that were once dependant on industry found themselves ravaged. It was against this backdrop, of a region steeped in two centuries of iron and steel, to one of turmoil and uncertainty, that Steel Stories was born.
Following the closure of SSI, members of Teesside University (TU) and Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council (RCBC) met to consider how Teesside’s iron and steel heritage could be curated against a backdrop of community and history being lost forever. The decision was made to apply to Lottery: Heritage Fund to fund an exhibition celebrating Teesside’s industrial heritage, and that this exhibition would be situated within RCBC’s flagship attraction: Kirkleatham Museum. The museum is located within eyeshot of British Steel’s Lackenby rolling mills – a site that still operates and employs locally. Steel Stories would draw upon the memories, emotions and artefacts from steelworkers themselves, providing an authentic exhibition. In 2017, with the proposals put forward, Lottery: Heritage Fund awarded £69,000 to RCBC and TU to deliver on their ambition, vindicating a firm belief in Teesside that, against recent devastation, it was imperative to celebrate the region’s industrial heritage, allowing visitors to learn and appreciate why industry is synonymous with the region.
Work began in early-2018 with the employment of a full-time Project Officer and a priority of gathering as many steelworkers as possible, in order to build an understanding of why iron and steel has been vital for Teesside’s development. This process took the form of community roadshows, wherein a “call to arms” implored steelworkers to come forward with their stories and artefacts, as well as pleas to those with a vested interest in industrial heritage, such as local academics and those with generational links to Bolckow and Vaughan, Dorman Long et al. Organisations, businesses and industry leaders associated with industry were encouraged to come forward too, as their stories were valuable for the great tapestry of heritage that Steel Stories sought to weave. The first roadshow occurred in April 2018 and surpassed expectations: ITV covered the event for their afternoon bulletin, while over 30 steelworkers signed up to have their memories recorded to portray in the exhibition, and some 50 artefacts were loaned to be used for display, including ceremonial casts of steel, helmets, boots and more besides. Meanwhile, businesses such as Primetals (blast furnace design engineers), Materials Processing Institute (steel-making science engineers), and British Steel (rolling mill operators) contributed a plethora of resources towards to the research and development of the exhibition. It is safe to say, then, that the community-focus of Steel Stories, be it through collecting research via roadshows, or gathering materials from industry, served as the backbone of the exhibition’s success.
Maintaining a strong relationship with the Teesside community throughout the development of Steel Stories ensured that those involved had a stake in the exhibition’s delivery. A steering group was setup to ensure that each facet of the community had a say in the exhibition’s development. Ranging from senior managers of SSI and trade union representatives, to local councillors and prominent artists, every voice contributed towards the finished installation. Sue Parker, of the Cleveland Institute of Engineers, provided over 50 years’ worth of expertise on steel-making research, but more importantly afforded an all too rare element to stories of iron and steel – that of a female perspective. Sue spoke about being smuggled through testosterone-fuelled locker rooms to reach her laboratory, as well as having to develop a quick wit and wicked sense of humour to surpass her male colleagues. Meanwhile, furnace electrician, Mike Guess, evoked feelings of loss and separation during SSI UK’s closure in 2015, not only in terms of loss of earnings, but loss of a way of life. The morbid humour and the camaraderie, even the noise and smell of machinery – the loss of this, to be replaced with the eerie chirps of pigeons, or the lingering stench of soot, is all too much for many who, before, during and since, have not come to terms with what has transpired. Nonetheless, these stories – some interesting, some humorous, and some, like Mike’s, poignant – would be fully represented in Steel Stories, through artefacts, through stories, and through original artwork.
Once memories were gathered, artefacts collected and content produced, a consultation process ensued in efforts to utilise each object, each sample of oral history, and each piece of artwork, to an extent that demonstrated the undoubted importance of industrial heritage in Teesside. Academics had their say on historic events for the visually impressive timeline, while steelworkers ensured that facts and figures cited were as close to reality as possible. Meanwhile, professional designers worked on providing an impressive space in which to display the aforementioned content, such as a dedicated steelworkers’ locker-room, wherein traditional display cases were ditched in favour of lockers whereby visitors could open steel doors to view workers’ overalls, boots and tools, as well as pipes and valves that play excerpts of interviews with steelworkers on, for instance, how it feels to work in an environment that is described as hell on earth. Each space was designed to maximise the materials provided by the Teesside community.
In April 2019 the exhibition launched to the general public. Because of the very early buy-in of former steelworkers, industrial businesses, historians and the community, as well as a professionally designed, informative, interactive, educational and exciting display, Steel Stories was a massive success, garnering universal praise from its visitors, exceeding the criteria of Lottery: Heritage Fund, and winning prestigious awards on the back of the exhibition’s ability to convey an authentic voice for those who have been left devastated by SSI’s closure. Steel Stories is a living representation of heritage, as evoked by those who forged it, and to be curated for generations to come. Surely, there can be no greater accolade for an exhibition than that.
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