The site also could be a first opportunity to present the past from a Public History point of view. Public history is: “all the means deliberate and otherwise, through which those who are not professional historians acquire their sense of the past”.
Public history is an important and growing subject because it is what the public now want. It tells us that people’s relationship with the past has changed and grown along with the changing circumstances of the population in terms of how they were taught, what they were taught and how politics, manufacturing industry, and society now operate.
These changes have taken place and have changed the way people feel and act. From the way people voted at elections to their use of traditional Cultural Institutions people now want their own choices. Gone are the days when the curators would say, ‘I know my collection, I know the history, I will tell the public what they have to know’.
We now know that the most important thing that happens during the museum visiting experience is what the visitor brings with them, and that people must feel that they can use a gallery as they wish, and that they don’t have to follow some predetermine route or take it in, in a linier fashion if they don’t choose to.
With this choice people have an increased sense of ‘the self’ in a way that cuts across the traditional class and academic boundaries and gives them freedom to become historians in their own right, connecting them with the past in new and exciting ways. With this freedom people’s relationship with the past has also changed, as they can now engage with it on a personal level. This is clearly borne out by the growth in the interest in family history and the growing interest in the living museums and nostalgic events, all the things that Sandfields could offer.
The growth in living museums and the move away from the traditional glass case ‘do not touch the exhibit’ museums supports the argument in that the way forward is to encourage this engagement with the past by persuading people to bring their artefacts of their personal history to museums and events and share the experience with others.
There is a tendency for us all to look at heritage in a way that is defined by one specific interest group, therefore we must appreciate that we think that this site should not be a site that attracts only steam engine enthusiasts. If we take for example the Severn Valley Railway, it is a full-size standard-gauge railway line running regular steam hauled passenger trains for the benefit of visitors and enthusiasts alike between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire, a distance of 16 miles.
A remarkable feature of the Railway not readily appreciated by visitors is that it is very largely run by unpaid volunteers, with a paid staff of around 70 people responsible for administration and commercial activities, plus regular track and rolling stock maintenance. At weekends throughout the year, some 200 volunteers appear on the Railway to perform many tasks, including repairing and repainting stations, reconstruction of viaducts and bridges, and rebuilding locomotives and rolling stock not to mention the operation of the trains! Many of the trades involved require training. This is provided by professionals who give their time free of charge. The 16 mile route is a major national and international tourist attraction. The line now carries approximately 250,000 passengers annually.
On the 1 June 1998 South Staffordshire Water Company held a public meeting at the station. There were 81 interested persons present that this meeting, who were assured that engine would be kept and that South Staffordshire Water Company were in discussions with the local Council to find a way forward. What is clear for this meeting is that these is certainly a public interest and if we take into consideration the fact that the Severn Valley Railway is running a successful operation with 200 volunteers, Sandfields certainly has both heritage and educational values to become a museum.
What is important to understand is that even though steam engine enthusiasts could form the backbone of a museum on this site, a clear strategy would need to be developed as early as possible to ensure that this site develops and offers a benefit and an interest to as many people as possible. The disciplines of public history will help and support in the development this vision.