Why we need museums: Old Town Resident Association column

By Jessica Durston - 31 August 2021


By Judith Randell-Sly of OTRA

When Honda ceased production at the end of July, another chapter in Swindon’s industrial heritage drew to a close. Swindon entered the industrial age in 1854, with the building of the rail repair works on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s new London to Bristol line, on the plain below Swindon on the hill.

The works expanded and became the major employer in the area, lasting until 1986. The glorious history of this time can be re-lived through the wonderful Steam museum, appropriately sited in the old railway works.

Most children growing up in Swindon get a chance to visit the Steam with their school, where they are able to handle artefacts, hear the voices and sounds of the steam era and admire the sleek engines.

They have an immersive experience that engages the imagination and enables them to appreciate the way of life and the daily hardships  of those who lived before and to have pride in their achievements.

However, Swindon had centuries of history before it became a convenient stop on the London to Bristol railway route.

It may have been a small, rather insignificant agricultural community, but people were living on the hills around Swindon from pre-historic times.

During the construction of the M4 motorway many archaeological digs took place and Swindon’s ‘other’ museum has many artefacts from these digs, chronicling life in and around the settlement on the hill. It also has a number of quirky items donated by local inhabitants, now long dead, including the famous ‘crocodile’ (actually a gharial) much admired and loved by generations of Swindon children.

A museum is more than just a place to spend a wet afternoon; it is a place where children (and adults) can learn about their local community and how it developed, about the local geology and how it impacts on the local surroundings, about local flora and fauna and other non-local and often quite random artefacts, such as dinosaur and whale bones, which fire the imagination.

Most museums run fun and informative activities for children and many have knowledgeable volunteers who can help explain many of the exhibits and put them into context.

Museums are about the past, but if you are new to an area they help you understand how it developed and arrived at its current state, while if you are local they help to put local life into context.

By examining the past, warts and all, we can learn from past mistakes and successes, using the knowledge to help us plan for the future, not just glorifying and romanticising what went before. If we do not understand our past we cannot build a successful future.


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