‘Why open days are our favourite days.’

Written by Victoria Green

Just like Christmas, Heritage Open Day comes around once a year. Every September, some 40,000 volunteers across England organise over 5,000 events to celebrate the country’s impressive history and culture. It’s the one time of the year that the public can see hidden places, previously inaccessibly to the public.

The best part of heritage open day is that it’s all completely free! So whether you’re taking your first foray into heritage tourism or looking to find a new attraction to enjoy, it’s the perfect time to fill your boots with all that your local town has to offer.

This year, Northampton’s Heritage Open Days offering was co-ordinated locally by Northampton Borough Council, with events spread across the weekend. From tours of the Phipps Albion Brewery to uncovering one of the four Norman round-churches left in England, Northampton was busy showcasing its heritage from Friday to Sunday.

For those who we have yet to meet, the National Leather Collection is the world’s largest repository of leather artefacts, with around 10,000 items that tell the world story of leather over the last two millennia. Amongst the objects are fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, James Bond’s shoes, George III’s toilet and Queen Victoria’s side-saddle. It is a globally significant collection, representing a lifetime of dedication to leather craft by founder, John Waterer. Now homed in Northampton, we are open to the public in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre every Wednesday and Saturday from 10am – 4pm. We offer the opportunity to get hands-on with leather, and are challenging ourselves to re-energise Northampton’s love for its proud heritage of leather manufacture and industry.

© National Leather Collection 2018
© National Leather Collection 2018

Last year, Heritage Open Day 2017 was the museum’s very first public opening in forty years. A sneak preview into the work that we were doing quietly behind the scenes on the 2nd Floor of the shopping centre. This year, we used Heritage Open Day to celebrate the increase in our opening hours and mark the start of regular Saturday openings. For those who have been with us throughout the year, the progress we have made is humbling. We have welcomed groups, hosted workshops and events, delivered talks, and are working in partnership with other organisations on some exciting leathery projects. All with the sole aim of educating people about the incredibly versatile material that is leather.

The National Leather Collection’s 2018 Heritage Open Day was a busy, vibrant affair with plenty going on! The museum showcased its ‘Leather at War’ exhibition (as part of the IWM First World War Centenary Partnership), which commemorates all conflict and demonstrates the use of leather on the front line throughout the centuries. We were also proud to unveil our newest permanent display, ‘Leather through Time’, which chronicles man’s use of leather from prehistory to present day. And if that wasn’t enough, our archive was open to the public to showcase the work of the Nenescape LPS funded ‘Telling the Story of Leather’ project, and secret store tours ran on the hour, every hour to introduce visitors to hidden leather treasures not normally on public display.

We were also pleased to introduce the Northants Police Heritage Collection, another fledgling museum. With everything from 19th Century batons to a WWII spy radio and modern stab vests, the collection is a tangible record of policing through time and is an incredible educational tool. Just as our collection was found boxed up in a storage cupboard five years ago, the Northants Police Heritage Collection has also been off the radar for a long time. It has now been given a new lease of life and, with a determined team of volunteers, is on its way to finding its feet as a publicly accessible heritage attraction.

Northants Police Heritage Collection

Northants Police Heritage Collection

For those all museum’d out, leather-crafting workshops ran all day to teach basic skills such as stamping and tooling. For those not feeling brave enough to get hands-on themselves, there were also crafting demonstrations by industry professionals, showing-off the more intricate skills of leather-crafting and book-binding.

Overall, the day was a resounding success! We welcomed over 200 visitors to our museum, and introduced them to the wonderful work that we are doing. And there’s no better place to wax lyrical about leather than in the centre of Northampton, the historical home of the UK’s shoe and leather industry. For those visitors who are ‘frequent fliers’, it was a great way to celebrate the growth of our museum over the past year and show off how far we have come from our very modest beginnings.

And that is why open days are our favourite days. Museums should not be intended to sit stagnating in a closed room, inaccessible history locked away behind glass for only those ‘qualified’ to experience and enjoy. Museums are educational resources to be shared with the public, to engage visitors and to encourage learning and development within the community. Yes, we are perhaps a little more ‘hands-on’ than your traditional museum, but leather is tactile and, sometimes, demands to be touched!

So where do we go from here? I hear you ask. Well, our answer is just to keep doing what we do best and continue to open to the public twice weekly, with a view to eventually increasing this further as our museum team grows. We will keep encouraging crafting and making, whether you’re saddle-stitching handbags or stamping bookmarks; every hour counts at the crafting bench!

And to both our first-time visitors and regular faces, we look forward to welcoming you again soon.

Like the sound of our Heritage Open Day? Get yourself a slice of the action this Saturday with our leather-crafting workshops. Join us at the museum from 11:00 – 12:00 every Saturday in September, and try your hand at making. For information and tickets, click here.

Don’t forget! Events for Heritage Open Days will be happening nation-wide this weekend! From the 13th – 16th September, participating heritage attractions across the UK will welcome visitors for free. Please check the HODs website for more information on your local area.