Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Industrial history museums

Okay, I love Versailles as much as anyone. But it's just as interesting to visit the world of the workers. Here are a few suggestions for getting to grips with the grittier side of European history.

The Leogang museum in Austria highlights the Salburg mining tradition. I rather like the fact that they make you walk down the mine - no tourist trains for this museum, which wants you to share the medieval miners' experience. The museum also includes a fine collection of metalwork - locks, keys, safes, clocks, and strange little iron animals made as ex-votos for Saint Leonhard, patron saint ofthe miners.

One thing I didn't know was that as well as mining for silver, copper and lead, the Schwarzleo miners also produced cobalt which sold to Venice for the Murano bright blue glass. And this whole area was a hotbed of Protestantism - the 'heretics' were only driven out in 1731.

Other mining museums in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic, and Bochum, Germany ( a nice blog on it here), as well as the mother of all mines, Stora Kopparberget - the Big Copper Mountain (namers don't come much more descriptive than that) in Sweden.

In the UK, the heavyweight industrial museum has to be Ironbridge, an early Industrial Revolution site. There are ten separate museums, though the real fascination of the area is that it's a fine industrial landscape. Here the method of smelting iron with coke instead of charcoal was discovered, and the ironmasters made their wealth.

Nuremberg was a major industrial centre in Germany from an early date - one reason the Allies bombed it pretty hard - and has some fascinating industrial museums. The Museum of Industrial Culture is housed in an old screw factory (you couldn't make it up...) and features a Motorcycle Museum with over 130 old bikes, together with displays of old cars, and telecoms history. Or if you're not a petrolhead there's the DB Museum (outdoor area open only April to October) with the original rolling stock of Mad Ludwig II of Bavaria's royal train, as well as a new ICE train (basically it's a German TGV, all right?) and the reconstructed Royal Waiting Room of Nuremberg station.

I have a certain fondness for Deutsche Bahn. Not as efficient and timely as it used to be - a five minute delay will no longer drive a stationmaster incoherent with rage - but a damn good railway none the less. Visitors to Regensburg looking for a good and inexpensive lodging may be lucky enough to stay at the DB training centre in Pruefening, and if you both read German and like trains, you'll enjoy the breakfast reading material. (If not just concentrate on the excellent buffet breakfast.)

Oh yes, if this isn't all specific enough for you, try a couple of the most specialised museums I've come across  in a long time - Nuremberg also houses the Tram Museum, Dialysis Museum,  the Fire Brigade Museum, Pigeon Museum, Museum of Garden Huts (I am not making this up), and Museum of Weissbier Glasses.

In France, one of my favourite industrial sites is the Seuil de Narouze, where the Canal du Midi is fed by 'La Rigole' - a fresh water stream from the Montagne Noire. This isn't a museum - in fact the old mill has become a stop for pilgrims walking the Via Tolosana to Santiago - but it's fascinating to see the way the water is captured, stored, and then released into the Canal du Midi. This is the watershed; it's all downhill from here, whether you're heading to the Mediterranean or the Atlantic. And what a marvellous work of engineering by Pierre Paul Riquet - a hero of French industrial culture second only in the estimation of many to the holy trinity of André Lefebvre, Flaminio Bertoni and Pierre-Jules Boulanger*.

Typical of France in its application of classical design and industrial function is the royal saltworks at Arc-et-Senans. Claude-Nicolas Ledoux designed it in the 1770s as a symmetrical arrangement of boiling-houses, canals, and workers' houses, laid out in a huge semicircle.

That's only a few industrial museums. I haven't even touched the brewery museums (like the Museum Brewery run by Coors in Burton on Trent - which still brews very fine beers based on historic recipes, such as P2 - a personal favourite) or the many purely local museums.

If this blog post has interested you, then you might want to check out European Routes of Industrial Heritage -  many more industrial sites including mines in Asturias, an open salt works in Cheshire, textile museums, and more.
* who of course created the iconic 2cv.

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