Summerlee Museum of Scottish Industrial Life stands on the site of a former ironworks, just a short walk away from Coatbridge train station. Under cloudy grey skies, the entrance looks sombre and imposing; the gates bear an image of the industrial workers who once laboured there, captioned ‘The past we inherit, the future we build.’
The remains of ironworking and engineering structures are scattered around the sprawling outdoors area, where a delightful tram regularly chugga-chuggas past picnic benches. As you enter the exhibition hall, you can find a child-sized car and souvenir penny machine near the toilets and museum shop. Exhibits on prehistoric and Roman-era Scotland are located on the other side, including geology and archaeology displays.
But the main attraction is a celebration of nineteenth-century heavy industry. Massive equipment looms before a backdrop of historic advertisements, and many exhibits incorporate videos explaining the process. While watching workers manipulate molten iron in a frighteningly white-hot furnace, one has a sense of awe at the expertise and strength required to do such dangerous, difficult work. Interpretive text emphasises the importance of precise timing while operating heavy equipment, leaving visitors with great respect for the workers’ skill.
Interactive displays are present, although mostly unavailable due to COVID restrictions—a model that can be hand-cranked to show equipment in motion (complete with tiny workmen), different textures and types of metal for visitors to touch. The text is clearly written, making complex topics accessible and child-friendly. A pig iron trough exhibit explains the smelting process and how to tell whether the iron was acceptable. The quality of the iron determined workers’ pay, one of many interpretation elements that highlight labour conditions and workers’ rights. Consistent efforts are made to humanise the subject, such as life-size figures of ironworkers engaged in the process (with somewhat disconcerting facial expressions) and sets of historic workers’ clothing. An elevated walkway provides an excellent overhead view of the exhibition hall and external structures, and from this vantage point, eagle-eyed visitors can spot a model workman somewhere near the ceiling. Black-and-white footage is also projected on a large scale within the exhibition hall, better viewed from the walkway.
Other exhibits recreate everyday life in a working community, including several shops and even a dentist’s office complete with chair. Finding your way from one display to the next can be a little confusing—one gets lost amidst all the sweets and alcohol—but the exhibits are always immersive, with rich and interesting interpretation.
The exhibition hall’s COVID-safe one-way system concludes near the café, with displays on prominent local individuals such as the Baird family. A magnificent oil painting, Caleb Robert Stanley’s Gartsherrie by Night (1853), is mounted alongside text describing a hellish contrast between roaring blast furnaces and the surrounding Scottish countryside. You can read more about the Bairds and nineteenth-century ironworking at Gartsherrie, Coatbridge here: https://www.culturenlmuseums.co.uk/story/the-bairds-of-gartsherrie/.
Outside, a former mine lies in picturesque disrepair, its stone and brick remains half-covered by overgrowth and littered with rubbish from less considerate visitors. Walking along a canal green with algae, you may be followed by a pair of friendly swans and discover other interesting sights—a children’s playpark, a book sculpture, something like a seesaw (sadly immovable), the stationary boat where a wonderful animation by primary school pupils plays on repeat.
A series of cottages, each designed to recreate interiors from a particular decade, rounds out Summerlee Museum’s suite of charming attractions. Nearby, there is a confectionery shop, and visitors can wander in and out of it and the cottages to their hearts’ content. They can also board a historic tram to ride around the museum site, and no one ever tires of waving to the driver and passengers alike as they pass.
Summerlee Museum is open 7 days a week, 10am–4pm. Entry is free but booking is essential. Pre-book slots here: https://www.culturenl.co.uk/covid-19/covid-19-summerlee/.
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Wei Ai Ng is currently a Masters student in Museum Studies at the University of Glasgow. She earned her BA in History and English from the University of Oxford, where she regularly volunteered at the Ashmolean Museum. Wei Ai has written research reports for the United Kingdom’s National Trust and the Netherlands-based Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation. She aims to specialise in museum education, with a focus on early childhood development.