Frank Atkinson (1924–2014)

Frank Atkinson was the founder-director of Beamish, the museum’s inspiring genius, and an influential advocate over many years for the conservation of the industrial heritage of North-East England.

He was born at Mapplewell, a coal-mining community in Yorkshire, the son of a plumber and grandson on both sides of his family, of miners. He was an enthusiastic collector from an early age, and at the age of 16 determined to follow a career in museums. He studied science at the University of Sheffield, after which he was employed for a time in a coke works before obtaining a job at the museum at Wakefield. In 1952 he embarked on a tour of open air museums in Scandinavia and he took inspiration that lasted for the rest of his life from Skansen and other museums that he saw.

In 1958 he became curator of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, an extraordinary building rather like a nineteenth-century French chateau that houses a collection of French and Spanish fine art of international significance. He began to collect artefacts relating to the social history of the North East in the same way that Artur Hazelius had collected items relating to traditional rural life in Sweden, but some, such as wagons from early railways, were difficult to accommodate at the Bowes Museum, even in the outbuildings.

In 1966 a working party was set up to investigate ways of study and preserving artefacts and buildings relating to the social and industrial history of the region. A site became available at Beamish Hall in Co Durham, and Frank Atkinson was appointed to direct the museum in 1970. The museum opened the following year and its successes in the years that followed, when it was subject to numerous threats, owed much to his political and managerial skills. He retired as a result of ill-health in 1987, but enjoyed an active old age at Ovingham in Northumberland.