Beyond the Glass Case: Old Low Light, North Shields
The Old Low Light sits on the spot where North Shields began many centuries ago. It is the oldest surviving, occupied building on the Fish Quay and started life as a lighthouse, leading mariners safely into the River Tyne. Centre manager Pearl Saddington writes for Northern Soul about its transformation into a thriving heritage centre and there’s a gorgeous photo gallery by our North East Photographer, Phil Pounder.
Since the Old Low Light heritage centre opened its doors just over a year ago, it has proven itself to be a vital community asset. Located in the heart of North Shields’ historic Fish Quay, snuggled in the corner of Clifford’s Fort ancient monument and overlooking the mouth of the River Tyne, it aims to tell the story of the past (including the very recent past) to inform the present.
So far more than 20,000 visitors have engaged in a dynamic exploration of the North East’s fishing and maritime heritage. Young and old have been transported to extraordinary places and, via the authentic voices of Old Low Light volunteers (navigators, RNLI coxswains, trawler skippers, pilot boat skippers), they have experienced life at sea through the experiences of real people and their personal objects.
Not afraid to shy away from controversial issues, the Old Low Light displays contentious contemporary objects alongside its regular displays. This summer’s hero exhibition, The Shipyard Painters, will draw on private and public collections to explore the works of art created by employees of the Tyne’s famous shipyards.
The shipyards of the Tyne, such as Swan Hunter and Hawthorn Leslie, are renowned for the technical expertise involved in designing and building some of the world’s largest and most famous ships, including RMS Mauretania, HMS Newcastle, HMS Ark Royal, Atlantic Conveyor and Esso Northumbria.
As a break from the meticulous detail of the drawing office and precision engineering of ship fabrication, a wealth of original art was created in leisure time by some of the artistically talented men and women who worked in the shipyards. Paintings by employees of the yards were shown at occasional exhibitions organised by an informal Swan Hunter Artists Group in the 1970s and 1980s but most of their work is little known outside the local area.
A few of the artists were able to use their talent as a way to escape a lifetime working in the shipyards and a handful went on to become professional artists. Others spent their entire working career in the yards and remained lifelong amateur painters. Their art reflects contrasting aspects of the North East; from gritty industrial scenes depicting life in the shipyards to works illustrating the stunning North East coast and countryside.
However, visitors to the Old Low Light will be also be able to discover why there is no shipbuilding in the area any longer, opening up political discussions outside of the traditional media space. The Old Low Light will become a physical area where evidence and counter evidence can be presented, and where active and vital conversations can take place.
Like all of its temporary exhibitions, this new show is co-produced and curated by local communities. By taking a collaborative approach, members of the public are encouraged to develop, design and make new displays. They take ownership of workshops, events, talks and programming. As a result, the Old Low Light has been well used by local communities and businesses, and new stories linked to its collections have been revealed. The centre reflects the rich passions of these communities enabling them to give voice to their interests.
Working alongside a team of committed volunteers, staff at the Old Low Light are creating what is known as a Total Heritage Centre, one where every member of staff and crew is comfortable in multiple roles. And so the heritage manager will generate income, the operations manager will deliver learning sessions, facility technicians can work front-of-house and trustees can serve in the café.
After hours the beat goes on. So far the venue has played host to international guitar masters and showcased flamenco performers prior to Newcastle’s annual ¡VAMOS! Festival. It has welcomed Grammy Award-winning international folk and Americana artists and staged award-winning live theatre performances.
This summer the Old Low Light’s outdoor space will again become a fringe venue for the region’s popular Mouth of the Tyne Music Festival (July 8-10, 2016). Highlights will include a Traditional Skills Festival as well as Kirsty Bromley and Lucy Wise’s Two Hemisphere’s Tour.
As an organisation, the Old Low Light will continue to actively involve people in everything we do and we hope we can help individuals and communities to realise their ambitions too.
By Pearl Saddington
Photos by Northern Soul‘s North East Photographer Phil Pounder
Old Low Light Heritage Centre is a registered charity. For more information, click here or ring 0191 257 4506.
The Shipyard Painters exhibition opens on July 22 and runs until September 18, 2016 at The Old Low Light Heritage Centre, Clifford’s Fort, North Shields Quayside. For more information click here.
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