I researched salt during explorations for my thesis because it is an ingredient in the soda process, it has multiple domestic uses beyond seasoning food, such as killing weeds, as well as some more unusual (and minority) uses where it has been used as a punishment and a poison. Salt, therefore, can be more interesting than you initially think. The purpose of the Lion Salt Works is to showcase the production of salt from brine in open pans, at the very location that it occurred between the 1850s (not as the same company) and 1986. During my research phase, the Lion Salt Works was shut and undergoing some fairly extensive development as a visitor attraction. The museum is right on the Trent and Mersey canal, in a place that has a train station, which makes it a good mooring spot that we’ve used fairly regularly, so the museum has been on my radar for a while now. Earlier this September we moored nearby again, and I took the opportunity to visit.
Although the museums I’ve written about so far on this blog have been local museums, I worked at the Museum of Science and Industry for nine years (when it was MSIM, then MOSI) and my Museum Studies MA dissertation was based on how visitors find their way around industrial museums. I chose to study navigation solutions because industrial museums frequently occupy a number of different buildings on quite large sites, which many visitors find interesting, yet challenging. One of the ways to deal with a multi-building site is to shepherd visitors along a particular route that gives them a particular experience. This method makes sure key places are visited, so that parts of the story which often relate specifically to particular buildings can’t be missed out. Strict routes might reduce the opportunity for visitors to explore and discover by themselves, or to dip in and out, but these points are more relevant to museums with more varied collections, whereas the Salt Works if a ‘single issue’ museum. Here, the linear visitor experience prepares visitors to expect exposure to the sequential processes which are at the heart of a salt production facility.
Within minutes of arriving at the museum, I had looked at three slightly different maps of the site. The first one, located on the way into the museum, threw me completely. I like maps to be aligned, or to have a feature that I can easily recognise to help me orientate myself. This map did not show either the road I had left moments earlier, or the canal I had just walked along. However, it lists in detail galleries which do not entirely correspond to my visitor experience and are inconsistent with names on the other maps. The second map was handed to me at the reception after I paid my entrance fee, and because it showed the road and the canal as well as some photographs of the buildings or key features of galleries, it slightly improved on the first. I clutched this navigation-safety-blanket dutifully throughout the visit, but ultimately did not need it on such a linear path. The third was stylistically similar to my laminated version, but without the photographs, and positioned in accordance with the surroundings outside the first ‘main’ exhibition building. Despite the pump house being the logical starting point, as the engine and pump extracted the brine and moved it to where it was needed, it is easy to miss or underappreciate this dilapidated equipment. Perhaps at busier times of year, a guide draws more attention this area.
There were no staff or volunteers available on site when I visited on a midweek afternoon in early September, but a glance at the TripAdvisor reviews indicate that there are often tours, which go down very well. On a very quiet day, it can be a little unsettling to feel alone – or are you? – in a place that would have been so noisy and bustling. That said, it is not a silent place, at least in the first gallery, thanks to the soundtrack of very deliberate background-bustle and the staged scripts of different characters. These seemed to be one-off encounters, rather than characters we should expect to meet again, which was a bit of a shame because the archival photographs and oral histories were actually charming.
There are five main sections or galleries, each with a distinct look and feel, as well as topic or purpose. The first gallery, housed in what had been the Red Lion Inn, looks back at salt production, starting in Roman times. I spent some time wondering if an exhibition about salt really could skip over the etymology of place names, or whether I’d just missed it. Maybe the local visitors are sick of hearing it and this was a deliberate choice. In fact, the geology and to some extent, chemistry of salt is dealt with on the website. A small toy cat – part of a children’s trail – caught my eye along with the breathless squeal of a statement ‘Did you know they put wee and blood in the brine pans?’. The more grown-up interpretation did not take this information any deeper: were these protein-containing elements, equivalent to adding eggwhite to clarify a stock? The absolutely minimal chemistry throughout the exhibitions must have been a very careful decision. It was interesting that there was no mention of any scientific understanding, measuring or standardisation. The only instruments I noticed were scales in archival photographs which were used to weigh products during packing, I did not spot any analytical equipment on display. The most highly prioritised thing in this story about salt production is tacit knowledge: just knowing by practice, the look, feel, and sounds which indicate when something is right. As it dawned on me that this was the slant the curators had chosen, I wished even harder that they had been able to find and use video footage, and to make more of those oral history recordings they’d collected.
My interest in how chemicals have been used at home meant that I was interested to see bricks of salt wrapped in paper for domestic use, which, the interpretation label informed me, the housewives of Cheshire preferred until the 1970s. They pounded the salt with rolling pins or pestles. This tiny nugget of information unleashed a torrent of questions, including how long did a loaf of salt last in a household, before the fear of salt was fostered by public health initiatives? Exhibitions should provoke questions, and these objects certainly did.
The second part of the exhibition showcases the buildings and equipment used in the production of salt from the brine. The hostile environment created by the salt, heat, and water is evident in the rusted metal, as well as the degraded wood. Below the salt pans are the stoves which heated the brine to boiling point. Scooping and skimming the salt from the pans was physically demanding, yet skilled work. I appreciate that you can’t have unsupervised people potentially injuring themselves as they wrangle heavy and unfamiliar items, but I definitely wished there was a better way to experience the physicality of these manual jobs. Photographs of shirtless, wirily muscular men were the only things to go on. I found the Pan House Experience, which relied on dense drifts of dry ice to represent steam, to be predominantly atmospheric. After the boiling pans, visitors walk through several low-ceilinged drying rooms, before reaching the third section of the exhibition in Stove Houses 3 and 4, which is more hands-on. Here, there are handles to turn and buttons to push that cause water to flow through models and lights to illuminate, but more importantly, there are telephone handsets to listen to memories of workers and people who lived nearby. They were my favourite bits because they gave such lovely insights into working life. For instance, employees used to intentionally jam up the salt block crusher by overloading the machine so that they could get longer breaks.
Some of these recordings shared memories from the Lion Salt Work’s neighbours, which is important because the steam, sounds and traffic associated with salt production made quite an impact on those living nearby. There was (finally! or had I just missed it before?) an explanation of how different grades of salt were made, so the types of salt which had been mentioned throughout the exhibitions started to make more sense. Brine that was evaporated very slowly made large coarse grains for preserving fish, whereas the hottest temperatures made the finest, small crystals of salt. I had to look up what was special about the Lagos salt exported to Nigeria, which turned out to be a particularly flaky grade of salt that withstood African high temperature and humidity meaning that it was preferred by consumers there. Overseas trade means that there is definitely scope for some really great geography interventions here, especially with the Paterson Zochonis connection.
The fourth section of the exhibition, the Landscape Gallery in Stove House 2, overlooks the canal and beyond the waterway, the flash created by the collapse of a salt mine. Large photographs of the local area form the basis for descriptions of the impact of the salt industry on the environment. Subsidence meant that structures had to be built with this eventuality in mind, and there was also the possibility of sudden landslips.
The fifth and final section of the exhibition could easily be missed by a visitor who has sensed the end of the exhibition, especially as the maps do not mention that there is anything here to see. In the corridor leading to the museum exit (via the shop, naturally), a series of panels detail the modern production of salt. This seemed very much like an effort to engage with local industry, and unfortunately, a tagged-on after-thought rather than a planned progression to describe scaled up methods and greater understanding of environmental impacts. The content was actually very interesting and I would have liked to have seen more made of what is evidently still an active local industry.
I left the museum glad that I had visited. It had obviously been a challenge to tell the full story of salt production at that site in an accessible fashion, that utilised all the buildings in a balanced and meaningful way. I was surprised that I ended up getting most of the information about salt production from other sources after my visit. What the museum achieved particularly well was the collection and incorporation of memories of the plant and its activities from neighbours as well as employees, because when an industry has such a long history and noticeable presence in the locale these are important parts of the story.