Opened as a tourist attraction in 1983, Blaenavon’s Big Pit is part of the National Museum of Wales. It is one of Wales’s premier visitor sites and an education facility for the industrial history and archaeology of Wales. Adapting an existing iron mine, the coal mining operation developed from the mid-19th century to 1980.
I only recently visited for the first time with three of my offspring. I’ve long heard comments about how it portrays the mining industry and the experience of mining, so I was rather dreading it, but thought I needed to take my kids there someday.
We were able to follow the ‘King Coal’ below ground history of coal mining, which creates a benevolent ‘hard, grim but we loved it’ tour through the history of mining. We also got to explore the office, saw mill, powder house and other buildings at the pit head. However, disappointingly, we were not allowed to descend into the deep mine because of the young age of the children.
What struck me was the prominence of material culture to tell the coal mining story: not only the original buildings and machinery, but also portable items including, coats, lamps, helmets and even a model horse!
In particular, the importance of rails for the transportation of coal, both in the mine and from the mine, are prominently displayed. There were standard gauge steam engines and wagons, and narrow-gauge mine trains.
However, for all of this, there are seemingly no individual or collective memorials to those who served or perished in the mine. Perhaps I missed it? Instead, the entire landscape is a memorial to itself and to past industrial times. Yet the individuals who worked and died are somewhat subsumed into this collective narrative of nation and industry. A ‘living’ museum, like a zoo, can be argued to sublimate its former occupants: arresting time and denying mortality.