The Beacon Museum

In the summer of 2023 I took a trip to the town of Whitehaven on the western coast of England, the Cumbrian hills surrounding the area with a short drive to the Lake District just up the road (and when I say up……I mean up!).

The Beacon Museum was first on my list of sights to see as this was a museum that told the story of the town and one aspect I specifically wanted to know about was the attack by John Paul Jones in 1778, of which a statue of him is very close to the entrance.

The first thing I noticed was that the staff were very helpful and chatty, happy to talk about the town and express their knowledge to the visitor while being so enthusiastic about their museum, this is something I love to see and their passion shone through in how their museum was run. So it was a lift to the top floor first to see an exhibition about games and things from the 1980s, the Big Yellow Teapot in a glass case definitely made a few nostalgic memories surface!

The glass fronted top floor was home to a temporary exhibition, Titanic: Honour and Glory. Full of both original and replica items of the infamous ship as well as items from the 1997 James Cameron movie this display was a fascinating journey into the story of the lost ship. A really intricate model of the wreck in two halves stands in front of a huge board listing all 1500+ victims of the shipwreck. A good display and one that anybody not familiar with the story can learn from and get the basic facts.

Titanic:Honour and Glory Exhibition
figurehead from the wreck of the Maria Lowther

Down to the next levels there was an area for each part of the town history, including an official pardon to John Paul Jones for attacking the town, signed by the local dignitaries and now on display with a bust of Jones’s head (no relation – he added Jones himself; he was actually just born John Paul). With a strong link to the mining community, a Virtual Reality headset could be worn and you are taken down in a lift to walk around a mine, an interesting and unique feeling when you can look around a darkened tunnel with a pickaxe in your hand.

John Paul Jones pardon

The bottom floor is the story of the nuclear power plant at nearby Sellafield, how it developed and what rules and regulations are in force today to ensure not only the safety of the plant but that of the people surrounding the area. Nobody wants another Chernobyl or Fukushima, so every effort is made to make sure safe working of this station is top priority and this display goes into detail of this and shows the history of how the area developed this now famous site.

Nuclear power station and deterrent section

One of the things that makes this museum unique is the interactive parts, not necessarily designed for the amusement of children either. In the 1980s display you can be the weatherman on the TV, at the Sellafield area you can hover a diagram next to a TV screen and the diagram becomes 3D on the screen so you can see what it is telling you about nuclear power and how it’s made.

Finishing the tour in a room full of Roman info (a lot of it seemed to be aimed at kids) we headed to the gift shop where a few Titanic things and bits unique to Whitehaven were purchased.

This is exactly how museums should be – interesting, interactive and led by a team that shows they are passionate.

(For those visiting the toilets, the lights are on a timer. Found that out the hard way).

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Richard M. Jones

Richard M. Jones is an author and historian specialising in disasters and shipwrecks along with two World Wars. Spending his time between Hampshire and Yorkshire, he has put up 12 memorials to victims of forgotten tragedies and published 19 books along the way.