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Re-interpreting the North East’s industrial past


Traditional accounts of the North East’s identity have been intrinsically about heavy industry, but does the region’s past have a singular interpretation? The work of Professor Natasha Vall, Associate Dean and Professor of Urban and Cultural History at Teesside University, has attempted to give value to alternative narratives for the region, focusing on the complexities of representing industrial culture today, and in the past.

The Research

Vall’s research has spanned the settlement movement, industrial decline and cultural regeneration. In doing so, it has highlighted the complex task faced by cultural sector organisations, such as museums, in interpreting the North East’s industrial past during deindustrialisation.

At its heart, Vall’s work explores what shaped cultural activity and policy in the past, and how this has influenced the present. Bringing art to the ‘man in the back street’ showed how the settlement movement – bridging the gaps between social classes – was a precursor to state-led cultural policy in Britain after 1945. Residential settlements, the first of which was established in 1884, led to an increase in community participation in art and increased representation of working-class culture. This success set a precedent for later adaptations of the settlement principle in local art and culture programmes.

Cultural Region showed that an industrial society left the region with modest middle class cultural infrastructure, such as notable museums and major art galleries. However, the socio-economic legacy of deindustrialisation did not prevent local engagement with culture and art. In fact, the distance from metropolitan influence allowed local stakeholders to form cultural policy that celebrated industrial culture and created spaces for community actors to experience the North East as ‘cultural region’.

The Impact

Vall’s research has informed a series of regional arts and culture projects seeking to preserve Tees Valley heritage. Crucially, these projects have increased cultural participation, engaging new audiences and enabling new interpretations of the region’s industrial past.

Working in partnership with Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council and the SSI Task Force, Vall’s research supported the design and delivery of an award-winning exhibition at Kirkleatham Museum. The ‘Steel Stories’ exhibition ran from April until Dec 2019. In that time, it attracted over 30,000 visitors – a 28% year-on-year increase in visitor numbers for the museum – with 86% of visitors saying that they ‘felt pride in Teesside’s heritage after viewing the exhibition’.

The impact of Vall’s research has been felt by communities across the Tees Valley. In 2016, a successful Great Places Fund submission between Vall and Tees Valley Combined Authority, led to the formation of a large-scale cultural programme focusing on five ‘settlement’ arts. The programme increased collaboration across the region, created training and employment opportunities for over 350 local artists and small businesses, and supported over 12,000 local people, children and families to create and enjoy cultural activities.

As a direct result of this programme, investment in culture for the Tees Valley Combined Authority has been expanded from £1.8 million in 2016 to £20 million in 2019 and a TVCA Creative Visitor Economy Recovery and Growth programme developed.

“Vall’s research on how regional heritage can be used to reimagine a region’s future has directly informed our work. It led to the commissioning of three significant events as part of the Great Place Project that sought to actively foster and promote a positive sense of place through engagement with community groups, steelworkers, and young people, voices that have been side-lined in discussions of cultural regeneration.”

Executive Director, Tees Valley Arts

Centre for Culture and Creativity

Connecting researchers and practitioners from across the arts and humanities, the Centre for Culture and Creativity seeks to enrich cultural understanding, increase cultural engagement, enhance public debate, further creative and applied practice, and drive positive social change.

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