A Year of Storytelling at Industrial Heritage Sites

By Sarah Rovang posted 12-12-2019 13:54


Preservation Leadership Forum is presenting a series of posts by Sarah Rovang, the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. The fellowship allows its recipients—recent graduates with advanced degrees or emerging scholars—to study by travel for one year, providing them with opportunities to see and experience architecture and landscapes firsthand; think about their profession deeply; and acquire knowledge that will be useful for their future work, for contributions to their field, and for contributions to society. In her last post for Preservation Leadership Forum, Rovang looks back at her work regarding the the many facets of storytelling at industrial heritage sites across the world. For more about Rovang's work, read her posts on the SAH Bloglisten to her podcast, and follow her on Instagram @sarahmoderne.

What do a silkworm cocoon warehouse in rural Japan and a former shipbuilding yard in Amsterdam have in common? How do you connect a copper mining company town in the Chilean Andes to a woolen mill in northern England? One year and approximately 200 industrial heritage sites and museums later, these are the questions I’m trying to answer as I look back on my time as the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) H. Allen Brooks Traveling Fellow. Here on Preservation Leadership Forum (PLF) I’ve written about interpretive soundscapes in industrial South Africa, the role of dark tourism in Japan, interpretation of labor history and worker spaces in Chile, and providing a look at the role of visitorship and audio guides at industrial heritage sites. 

Zeitz MOCAA sits in the middle of a large square, creating dramatic vistas of the structure from across Cape Town’s waterfront district. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

In my final post for SAH, I reflected on some of the aspects that made certain sites effective examples of public storytelling, specifically looking at who industrial heritage is for, what stories (both local and global) are being told, while also recognizing that industrial architecture and technologies are still fundamentally cultural products.  With that in mind, this final piece on Preservation Leadership Forum examines the historic places I visited through the lens of historic preservation and interpretation.

Best Adaptive Reuse of an Industrial Structure: Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town, South Africa

The interior of the silo and elevator building have been carved out to create the new lobby space. The void at the center of the building was modeled on the shape of a giant corn kernel, an homage to the building’s former grain storage function. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Among the yachts, food halls, and co-working spaces that dot Cape Town’s gentrifying waterfront, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (opened 2017) looms large as a reminder of the dock’s former industrial function. Carved from a 1920s concrete grain silo and elevator building, Zeitz MOCAA is the work of British architecture firm Heatherwick Studio. The most provocative and compelling space is the building’s core where the lofty elevator building meets the cylindrical voids of the grain silo. From this central core radiate galleries housing the work of contemporary African artists. The museum features an excellent architectural audioguide that introduces visitors to each of these spaces. As an urbanistic gesture, however, I found the whole structure less convincing. Will the museum live up to its aspiration to become the “cathedral in the square” for Cape Town’s waterfront?

Runners Up: Gasometer Oberhausen, Oberhausen, Germany, and Salts Mill, Saltaire, England

Best Adaptive Reuse of an Industrial Landscape: North Duisburg Landscape Park, Ruhr Valley, Germany

The view from one of the blast furnaces in North Duisburg Landscape Park where stairs and railings have been added for the use of adventurous visitors. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

On the dreary March day when I visited the North Duisburg Landscape Park in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, the sprawling former steel and coal plant felt both post-industrial and post-apocalyptic. At the park’s core, a few restaurants, visitor center, and concert venue anchor Latz + Partner’s 1991 design for the 200 hectare site. Wander away from the center though, and it’s easy to become lost in a world of towering blast furnaces, labyrinthine machinery, and strangely serene cooling tanks. While I enjoyed the Zeche Zollverein complex in nearby Essen (especially the illuminating Ruhr Museum), the whole complex felt a bit sanitized, almost like an industrial theme park. By contrast, the density of monumental industrial architecture and machine remnants preserved in Peter Latz’s design for North Duisburg serve as a vivid reminder of heavy industry’s environmental impact on the Ruhrgebiet. 

Runners Up: Higashida Blast Furnace, Kitakyushu, Japan and NDSM Wharf, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Best Industrial Heritage Road Trip: Humberstone and the Nitrate Mining Landscape of the Chilean Atacama Desert

A row of abandoned salitrera worker housing off of Chile’s Route 5.| Credit: Sarah Rovang

In the far northern region of Chile, Route 1 and Route 5 wind through a surreal, almost Martian, landscape of stark desert and industrial ruins that tell the story of Chile’s nitrate mining heritage. We started in Iquique and took Route 1 south to Antofagasta, Chile’s second largest city. Along this coastal route, a thin strip of white beach is dotted with the ruins of former ports and processing plants for Chilean nitrate. In Antofagasta we stopped at the Museum of the Atacama Desert, whose buried concrete ramparts frame a view of the 19th-century silver foundry above. Looping back up Route 5 through the country’s interior, we passed scores of abandoned nitrate mining towns, or salitreras. The largest and most complete of these is the UNESCO-listed Humberstone. This massive site takes at least a day to explore, especially given the excellent bilingual museum located in the former pulperia, or general store. Maria Elena, an original salitrera off Route 5, is still an operational company town that brings together utopian town planning and well-preserved Art Deco architecture. A little further south, Pedro de Valdivia is an uncanny but deeply moving ghost town abandoned in the 1990s. 

Runner Up: Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site, Norway

Best Corporate Industrial Museum: Toto Museum, Kitakyushu, Japan

Despite seeming like an overwhelming number of toilet models, this chronological exhibit—like so many others in the Toto Museum—was clearly laid out and easy to follow. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

At their worst, corporate museums feel like gimmicky advertisements. But at their best, thoughtful historical interpretation can balance the commercial angle. The Toto Museum exemplifies many excellent qualities not just of corporate museums but of effective public storytelling more generally. Like other exceptional museums I visited, the Toto Museum blends the specifics of a historically-contingent local story (the adoption and manufacture of Western-style toilets in Japan) with a more global takeaway (that our bathroom fixtures say a lot about us as a species).

Runner Up: Verkade Experience, Zaans Museum, Zaandam, Netherlands

Best Engagement with Labor History in an Industrial Setting: Tie between Workers Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Arbetetsmuseum, Norrköping, Sweden

The Arbetetsmuseum is centrally located in the heart of the revitalized industrial downtown of Norrköping. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Before and during apartheid, many black African workers in South Africa lived in workers’ compounds, separated from their families and often far from home. One of the few that survives now serves as the venue for the Worker’s Museum in Newtown, a comprehensive introduction to the essential relationship between racial justice and labor rights in South Africa. Like the Swedish Arbetetsmuseum in Norrköping, which is housed in a former textile mill, the Workers’ Museum draws much of its interpretive power from its use of the preserved structures in which it resides. The Arbetetsmuseum makes a compelling case for the continuity between the early activism of women union organizers and the more recent Swedish activism around reproductive rights, LGBTQ recognition and equality, and inclusion and accessibility. 

Runners Up: Arbejdermuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark, and the People’s History Museum, Manchester, England.

Best Underground Industrial Experience: National Coal Mining Museum for England, Caphouse Colliery, UK

The entrance shaft and headgear above the Caphouse Colliery at the National Coal Mining Museum for England. No photos from the tour unfortunately; all devices bearing a battery are banned to prevent accident sparks! | Credit: Sarah Rovang

During my fellowship year, I donned over a dozen hard hats in preparation for subterranean adventures into diamonds, gold, coal, and mercury mines, champagne caves, and even a mysterious network of tunnels in Liverpool. The National Coal Mining Museum for England provided a fascinating but often chilling voyage into the historical conditions of coal mining from the early 19th-century to the present. Scale recreations of changing mine architectures and technologies made it easy to empathize with the mining families of the early Victorian era, who worked in appalling conditions before the first worker safety laws. The tour guides are former miners who use their own experiences to inform visitors about mining culture, unions, and the England’s shift away from coal.

Runner Up: Anthony’s Shaft Mining Museum, Idrija, Slovenia

Most Surprising Revelations about an Industrial Process: Tie between the Museum of Printing on Fabric, Mulhouse, France, and Newman Brothers Coffin Works in Birmingham, England.

Guide Cornelius demonstrates one of the foot-operated pressing machines that were used to make certain coffin fittings at the Newman Brothers Coffin Works Museum. | Credit: Sarah Rovang

Much of my year was spent considering the industrial exploitation of major raw materials (coal, cotton, copper, etc.). But some of the museums I most enjoyed were those that revealed the processes behind products whose manufacture I had taken for granted. The Musée de l'Impression sur Étoffes (Museum of Printing on Fabric) in the eastern French industrial city of Mulhouse is a sumptuous explosion of patterned textiles and behemoth printing presses. At the Newman Brothers Coffin Works Museum in Birmingham, England, I learned about how technology for making jewelry and cabinet hardware helped build a prosperous, vertically-integrated funerary fittings business, serving Britain’s leading celebrities and politicians.

Runner Up: Cup Noodles Museum, Yokohama, Japan

Sarah Rovang is an architectural historian, curator, and educator specializing in 20th-century American architecture with particular attention to technology, modernization, and the rural landscape.