The chief executive of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust reflects on 23 years of caring for the city’s heritage and looks to the future his successor faces
Continuous change is the key to the survival of museums, according to the man who has championed Sheffield’s industrial heritage for 23 years.
John Hamshere, chief executive of the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, is getting ready to hand over the responsibility of caring for Sheffield’s proud history of engineering and making.
It’s an enthusiasm that started when he first visited Kelham on a field trip in the mid-1980s while studying for a master’s degree in industrial archaeology, and when he was introduced to his beloved River Don Engine, built in 1905 and used for rolling steel armour plate.
Decades later, he can still recall the intense admiration he felt for the towering machine, which has long been the museum’s key exhibit.
“I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else, ever, in terms of its power, what it says about Sheffield industry, the drive, the innovation – all the things that have made Sheffield great.
I’ve completed everything I set out to do
“It’s almost organic in its nature when you see those rods going up and down and the pistons moving. It breathes with the steam.”
Father-of-two John later took jobs in Tyne and Wear and Cumbria but, in the early 1990s, learned Kelham Island was under threat amid punishing funding cuts, and that Sheffield Hallam University had been ‘instrumental’ in forming a charitable trust – the first of its kind – to take on the museum with the council and the Cutlers’ Company.
John successfully applied, joining in September 1994.
The 59-year-old added: “I knew that if an engine the River Don’s size was ever mothballed, it would never run again.”
He demonstrates a pin-sharp memory for dates as he reels off a list of initiatives aimed at drumming up enthusiasm in the early years, including Kelham on Sundays – which involved opening the place up as a venue to anyone from motorcyclists to lace-makers and a medieval re-enactment group – and a transport exhibition showcasing the 1921 Sheffield Simplex car, bought by businessman Sir Norman Adsetts.
The varied uses of the museum – built as a power station in 1897 for the trams – continue to this day, with weddings, opera, dance, music and markets taking place.
Signs of John’s guiding philosophy are all around at Kelham Island, and elsewhere on the trust’s sites at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and the Shepherd Wheel on the Porter Brook.
“The key thing for museums is you’ve got to have change to sustain your audience. That set the tone for the whole of my time here.
“What we had is a business model built on continuous change, driven by capital investment. Every year that I’ve been here we’ve had contractors on site doing a small project, or a big project – always something new.”
However, the ‘thing that saved Kelham Island’ is, in John’s opinion, the melting shop – a children’s activity that shows how steel is melted, poured and hammered through play.
“My eldest son, when he was four, was the guinea pig to see how far you could compress a child with a foam hammer,” jokes John, before adding more seriously: “The melting shop was all about putting the spark of excitement in a child’s mind. “If they come to a museum and they’re bored to tears, it’s going to fail. If they come and have fun they might say ‘Can I go to the museum again?’.”
The trust has invested and earned around £21 million over the years, in addition to council grants and lottery funding.
Money has been used to restore Abbeydale and provide a home for the Hawley Collection – a hoard of 70,000 Sheffield tools amassed by the late historian Ken Hawley.
Insurers also paid out £1.4m in 2007 to completely renew the museum after the disastrous floods which are nearing their 10th anniversary. Mud and debris from the Don filled the galleries and stores, necessitating a full restoration that lasted until 2009.
John, whose work was recognised at a Lord Mayor’s reception last week, said: “It was utterly devastating. We had no idea how the insurers would react, it was 13 years’ work wiped out. But they were supportive straight away.”
A new boiler for the steam engine, installed last February, represented ‘the last piece of the jigsaw’.
“I turned to people and said ‘That’s it, my job’s done now’.
“I’ve restored every derelict building, re-roofed the whole museum, brought into use every single space on the island, trebled the size of the museum, and created my own pub!”
John gestures to the Millowners Arms, the museum’s ale house which documents the city’s brewing heritage.
“I feel very privileged and lucky, because thanks to the board agreeing that I should go, I’m leaving at a time of my own choosing,” he says. “And I’ve completed everything I’ve set out to do, and I don’t think there’s many people in their careers that can say they’ve done that.”