In 2012, Snibston Discovery Museum’s Transform programme commissioned Adept to make a new piece, New Age of Discovery. It was a political, promenade piece, an odd mixture of intervention, performance and installation that imagined a future in which Snibston (a museum built on the former site of one of Stephenson’s own coal mines) had long been shut down as an economy measure.
For the one-night performance (repeated once in 2013) we sheeted much of the vast collection, plunged it into darkness and covered the floors with dead leaves. We populated the industrial heritage areas outside the museum with a strange army of funky engineers and performers. In Adept’s alternative future, a consortium of steampunk philanthropists reopens the coal mine and uses the revenues to reopen the museum.
In 2015, Leicestershire County Council closed Snibston Discovery Museum.
In the light of the attacks upon Bradford’s cultural heritage this week, I thought it was timely to post this, the final speech in New Age of Discovery delivered by the Director of the Discovery Consortium, standing on a bridge before we sent a locomotive ploughing through the projection screen beneath him to convey Snibston into an optimistic new future that sadly, it will probably never have.
“Humanity was born in the cold, in darkness and in ignorance.
“Two achievements lifted us above the animals: our mastery of fire and our ability to pass on what we had learned to the next generation. One amongst us, the human Prometheus, tamed fire, and made a pet of it. And with the fire, we fended off the cold and illuminated the darkness.
“Sitting together in its glow we told our stories, woven from the warp of our histories and the weft of our imaginations. The children listened, wide-eyed with wonder and the next day, went out into the world taller, standing on the shoulders of their elders’ experience.
“We learnt. Our knowledge grew so great that we constructed vast warehouses in which to store it. We called them schools, libraries, museums. We came to recognise that all who wished to share in the knowledge could and should be allowed to take as much as they wanted; for no amount of use consumed it. In fact, the opposite was true; the more people learned, the more knowledge they were able to add to the stores.
“We learned and applied our learning to invention until we could work miracles. We dug deep into the earth to find sunlight, millions of years old, stored in black coal and blacker oil. We burnt it to heat red rock until it wept tears of metal; and we shaped the metal into mighty machines that ate fire, belched steam and travelled the roads we built across the land, the sea and the sky.
“But in the luxury of plenty we became greedy and wasteful. We wasted a thousand days’ sunlight every night, turning it as bright as day, just because we could. We used energy as if we could never use it up. We used it as if we did not have children.
“There was one vital difference between the stores of knowledge and the reserves of fossil fuels; the coal and the oil were in finite supply. A hundred years ago, at the end of the twentieth century, both started to decline. The easy coal had all been dug, the shallow oil sucked out of the ground. People who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing closed the mines, because it was a few pennies cheaper to ship coal half-way around the world than it was to dig it from under our own feet.
“Our grandparents knew that the supplies of coal and oil were running dry, but they did little to safeguard our futures, for they had been born in the times of plenty, and it had made them selfish and short-sighted. As resources declined, so they looked around for any saving that would allow them to maintain their level of consumption. They saw the schools, the libraries and the museums and muttered that ‘difficult decisions would have to be made.’
“It is ours, the New Steam Generation, that has had to learn again to live without consuming; to put back into the earth that which we take out; to make; to repair; and to be content with less. We have rediscovered the value of knowledge the hard way; through the loss of it. And though it may take another generation, or ten generations, we will excavate the lost knowledge and put it back where it belongs, accessible to every person who wishes to use it.
“But the last of our coal did not go away. It lay hidden deep underground, as it had lain for past eons. Now, at the start of twenty-second century, when the oil has all but run out and the countries on the other side of the world no longer have enough coal to meet even their own needs, we find it once more, like a forgotten friend who had never gone away, except in our neglectful memories.
“So tonight we discover hope again; where it always was and always will be, in our own hearts. Tonight we are given one last chance; an opportunity to make a better future for us all. Here, in the heart of Coalville we have rediscovered precious stores of both those gifts which long ago lifted us out of the cold, the darkness and ignorance!
“Tonight ladies and gentlemen, we re-open Snibston!”