Of the cultural vandalism that has been dealt to the heritage of the north of England in recent weeks by governments of all dimensions, the closure on Friday of Bede’s World at Jarrow for no credible reason must be the most vile. The museum’s name was apt: the Venerable Bede was not just of the north-east, of England or even Great Britain but he is a world figure, perhaps our biggest contribution to European culture though he never left Jarrow in his 62 years. He was a polymath whose library was visited by the great scholars of 8th century; he calculated time, established that the earth was round, realised that the moon controlled tides; he calculated the date of Easter, invented sign language, translated the bible from Greek to Latin in the famous Codex Amiatinus, discovered a way of calculating from 0 to a million for the first time; he wrote around 70 books, the most famous being An Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
In 1995, next to the monastery where he lived his entire life, the archaeologist Dame Rosemary Cramp opened a museum devoted to Bede and Anglo-Saxon life in a recreated post-Roman villa. Four years ago, inexplicably, the International Council on Monuments and Sites decided against giving the site world heritage status – “There is no doubt that Bede is a world story and should be appreciated as such” said Professor Cramp.
Not only does the world no longer appreciate Bede, neither does England. If Bede’s World had been a failure efforts should have been made nationally to ensure its success as a place of education as much as wonder, but it wasn’t a failure. It was out-performing the Arts Council’s goals. In its last year it welcomed 70,000 visitors, a record; it had an in-house sixth form that exceeded all expectations with its result; it had an award-winning apprenticeships scheme; award-winning community programme; a symbiotic relationship with the British Museum, and museums in Glasgow and Birmingham. The museum was built using locally found materials and methods, and an Anglo-Saxon farm has been created; this year the museum’s own copy of the Codex Amiatinus, of which there are only three, was to arrive. A Saxon boat was near completion.
In December the talents of its director, Mike Benson, had been noticed elsewhere and he left to become director of the National Coal Mining Museum; his co-director, Dr Kathy Cremin, has left the museum sector altogether. They were not replaced.
Bede’s World is a gem, uplifting in a way that Stonehenge never can be because it's so alive, thanks to the dedication of curators, local people and youngsters, and yet it has been deemed “financially unviable” after the relevant authorities have “reassessed their heritage offer”, soulless jargon of 21st century administrators that confine our most valuable heritage to the bin.
It’s as if Stratford-on-Avon District Council had reassessed its heritage offer and decided Shakespeare wasn’t financially viable and closed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
What on earth are we thinking of?