National Brewery Centre – 15th February 2016.
So one of the challenges I set myself was to visit as many curated heritage, arts or culture experiences as possible to develop my professional response to these and gain access to a wide range of experiences – within and without areas that I find of personal interest. We used to live in Burton and I recently watched an amazing programme about the history of the river Trent in Burton and it’s involvement with the brewing industry so I decided to give the National Brewery Museum a go.
We visited on a Tuesday, so it was fairly quiet. The Brewery Centre was a paid-for experience. I checked out the reviews of Tripadvisor in advance, which were generally positive. I took Mylo with me as the presentation seemed fairly family orientated.
The reception was manned by a very pleasant and friendly member of staff. He talked us through the basic information, let me keep my bag in reception and directed us towards the stables.
The first place we visited was the Shire horses. The set up was nice. Original looking stables containing too Shires, Walter and Jed. There was a step-up for younger children to see in however it was still quite low and I had to pick Mylo up in the end for him to really engage with the animals, as the height of the barrier was still about 4 feet in the air.
Now,before I go any further I just want to put my opinions into context. The museum obviously has access to some amazing artifacts and archives from it’s time brewing beer. It has made an amazing contribution to shaping the town of Burton and played a pivotal role in industry and commerce. Molson Coors is still a major employer in the town. I worked for Molson about 10 years ago and as such I know they have very high standards. I had an expectation for the Brewery Centre experience, particularly with an entry price of £8.95 for an adult and £3.95 for a 3 year old. I suppose putting this into context, claiming they have over 220,000 visitors a year ans assuming most of these are going to be paying adults, that is still nearly £2 million of turnover.
Unfortunately it was a real disappointment.
The layout of the experience consisted of two buildings with some assorted outbuilding, a yard. The inside areas consisted of an exhibition about brewing generally, and a second about the Bass company. There was the horses complex, with a number of carts and some displays about the horses and their work. There was a vintage vehicles section, containing fire-engines, trucks and steam engines. A dedicated steam area showed original engines that were used to power the plants. There was a modern brewery area with current equipment, which,I guess, was brewing beer. Somewhere there was a chance to try some of the stuff, but no-one offered me any, nor did I see any sign to direct me where to ask.
Once inside the complex I couldn’t find one member of staff beyond volunteers in civvie clothing working with the horses or vehicles. The main toilets were outside; not the best in February.
There was some amazing stuff on show. The images and wealth of information was broad, but it just wasn’t presented very well. Inside the first exhibition we visited, off the reception, the presentation boards were fixed to the walls with their tops nine to ten feet of the ground. The text was small. It would have been impossible for children to read, and difficult to view for any length of time.
Much of the information was about the technicalities of brewing beer, which is fine. However the presentation of the facts was quite sterile, particularly when juxtaposed against picture after picture of the workforce at the museum. You wanted to know who these people were and what were their stories, especially in relation to the history of the town.
I felt that there was a general feeling of lifelessness and simply being unloved, and even ill considered about the experience and curation. Exhibits were piled up in front of the information boards, making it hard to take in either. Everything needed a really good clean, some of the items were filthy. Some real low points included the childrens’ activity area of the top floor of the Bass museum that contained nothing, the cordoned off area in the steam room because of wet paint, which blocked most of the viewing area and many many instances of where electrical equipment simply didn’t work.
We saw one stand with an ‘out-of’order’ notice on and came across probably another 8-10 which had faults, from audio recordings that didn’t switch on, to the lighting of the Burton scale model failing to work. The real shock for me was the full size model steam engine that is all but hidden behind a 300 person marquee that is permanently erected. We nearly missed it on our way out – a real shame because it was a beautiful piece of engineering, and included he director’s private coach which was beautifully finished..
An audio guide was referenced on the way around, however we were not offered a chance to take it up in reception. There was no map of the venue, nothing supplementary to take around to guide you.
There were some positives – such as the horses and their staff, who were all very friendly and it was great to be able to get close to such large and gentle animals. Also, the model of Burton town centre as it was in the turn of the 19th Century was amazing to see. I lived in Burton for 3 years and didn’t realise how much the centre had changed over the last 100 years. Nearly all the areas devoted now to retail and leisure were given over to support the brewing industry. I appreciate now, really appreciate, why so many people lamented the passing of British Industry. It was stupendous, and if each town had it’s own trade or industry in the way I suspect they did there was certainly a huge amount of skill, and jobs lost.
Overall, it was okay, but nothing special, which is such a shame. The whole experience could be so much better. It is as if the company running it has taken the lowest common denominator for what a brewery museum should be. As the experience was centred around brewing in Burton so much more could be done to link the subject to the history of the town, the workers, the people and the social changes of the times. There must be very few places where the main employer and town industry of the last 150 years was coupled with a population who could probably just about still remember the exhibits, company and subjects in the museum. Nothing was shown of that though. There was no mention of the stories of the workers beyond a few snippets.
I think to include the living and memories of the workers would truly bring the exhibition to life. If the experience was free I would say that it would be worth checking out, but otherwise, unless you are a interested in brewing or Burton, I would give it a miss.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I made the visit and after reflecting and finding some more reviews online I understand that the venue hold regular family events and conduct guided tours. I can imagine these would greatly improve the overall interaction between the Brewing experience and it’s audiences, however this isn’t enough for me when I visited and received pretty poor value for money.
Full gallery of images below: