History Lessons

Change, we are continually assured, is good. It is the agent of
progress. The prime minister, Tony Blair, tells us his agenda has
“no reverse gear”, echoing Margaret Thatcher’s iconic “the lady is
not for turning”. With such a modernising outlook it seems the past
can’t get a look-in.

As it’s is all too easy to forget the past we have, for example,
museums which can stimulate, fascinate and educate; satisfying our
curiosity and enlarging our understanding of the past and

And guess what? Social work has its own museum, and has done for
nearly 30 years. But come Christmas it will have closed.

The Heatherbank Museum of Social Work – the dream of one man –
was founded in October 1975 by Colin Harvey, a social worker and
lecturer who practised mostly in the voluntary sector. “His
intention was to allow social workers in practice and in training
to learn something about the history of their profession,” says the
museum’s curator Alistair Ramage, a retired teacher and
non-stipendiary Church of Scotland minister.

Harvey originally sited the museum in his own house in
Milngavie, seven miles north of Glasgow. A grant enabled him to buy
a van to take the museum out to people – a practice that only
stopped when the van finally did. Sadly, Harvey, a polio-sufferer,
died in 1985 aged just 53. However, his wife, Rosemary, took up the
mantle. “She wanted to appeal to a wider public than just the
social work community and thus developed exhibitions with social
work connections,” says Ramage, who became curator in 1993.

The museum moved to Glasgow Caledonian University the following
year, with the institution taking over the funding in 1996. It was
moved to the city centre campus in 1999. “Since then we have
operated a standard museum programme as well as providing resource
materials for students of the university – which began the new
social work degree this year.”

The public gallery reflects social exclusion themes more than
pure social work. Ramage agrees: “We identified eight areas of
concern that linked into social work but which didn’t say ‘social
work’ full stop. Originally we had sections on housing, health,
child care, the church [the Church of Scotland is the largest
employer of social workers in the voluntary sector], prisons and
poorhouses – and later we included two more: disability and

The museum’s Scottish slant is no better exemplified than by a
set of large, chunky keys from Barnhill, Scotland’s largest poor
house, that tugged at my imagination in the way only history can.
Barnhill, now long demolished, was sited but a mile away from the
museum itself.

There is also a strong voluntary sector link. Two street
collecting boxes for the Royal Scottish Society for the Prevention
of Cruelty to Children (now Children First and the equivalent of
the NSPCC south of the border) feature foot guards from the Queen’s
household division complete with bearskin hats and rifles. Ramage
wondered “whether this was a slight anomaly – even if a soldier
with a gun was thought appropriate – in Scotland you want a man in
a kilt, surely?” The answer he discovered proved quite simple. “The
RSSPCC wasn’t too well-off so they often bought second-hand
collection boxes from the NSPCC down south – which was not short of

Sadly, the museum is also short of money. The doors will close
for the last time on 23 December. “My responsibility on returning
to work after Christmas is to de-commission the public gallery –
basically putting everything into boxes,” sighs a resigned Ramage.
“There’s a large lottery bid being put together to digitise the
artefacts as part of move towards creating a virtual museum. The
plan is to create in the new university building, set to open next
summer, a ‘museum in a box’ – a large cube that a visitor can walk
in and access the website with a few artefacts on display.”

So from being able to touch the artefacts you will soon only be
able to touch a screen. The future may be virtual but the past
remains very real indeed.


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