‘The Second World War: Barnsley’s Story’ offers an as-yet unseen glimpse into life in Barnsley from 1939 to 1945 - covering the town’s fundraising, how it supported refugees and evacuees, and the efforts of miners and factory workers.
The exhibition was opened with a special event on Saturday, featuring a life-size composite Spitfire - made out of parts of retired planes - parked outside the town hall, possibly on the very spot where a working plane would have once stood as the people of Barnsley helped to fund the war effort.
The Spitfire, tracked down by the Experience Barnsley team and transported over from a group in Lytham St Anne’s, clearly attracted the punters - community curator Steven Skelley said the town hall museum had been the busiest it had ever been over the weekend.
“On the night the Spitfire arrived there were queues of people asking the security guards what was going on, and the next day we had the busiest ever day with hundreds of people in the square outside,” said Steven.
“There were 70 or 80 people in Experience Barnsley at any one time, we had to do one-in-one-out. Even when we opened we didn’t have that much interest.
“We’ve had the most positive feedback we’ve ever had, hundreds of comments and thousands of photos.
“The buzz created across Barnsley has been unparalleled. We’ve been quite touched by it.”
Exhibition curator Melissa Gallimore said she wanted to focus on ‘Barnsley’s story’, away from the wider context of the war.
“We wanted to make it as much as possible about what the people of Barnsley achieved,” said Melissa, who has previously worked on the Cooper Gallery’s ‘Artists and Adventurers’ exhibition and the Cracking Ceramics project at Cannon Hall.
“This is Barnsley’s story, it’s not about the bigger picture of military movements or what was happening overseas.”
Items on display include a wartime wedding dress, objects from the Pogmoor plane crash - including the plane’s propellor - a baby’s gas mask, and a ‘Mayor’s Spitfire Fund’ recipe book produced by the women of Barnsley to raise funds for one of the planes.
The Spitfire on display on Saturday was loaned thanks to Experience Barnsley’s increased funding from Arts Council England.
A mining helmet and wooden boots were donated to the collection by the National Union of Mineworkers.
Melissa said: “The objects on display are there to bring out the individual stories, which hopefully people will relate to.
“For example, mining was hugely important in terms of the war effort.
“A lot of the literature ignores mining, and a lot of the mining literature ignores the war, so that’s been a main interest for us and one of the things we wanted to uncover with the exhibition.
“It took a lot of detective work as it is a quite complex story.
“The exhibition is almost a starting point as we can’t physically cover everything.
“It will hopefully extend beyond these four walls and create a lasting effect for years to come.”
‘The result of nine months of research’
THE Second World War exhibition may only be a ‘starting point’ but it is already the product of nine months of research.
Accompanying the objects are individual stories of living, working and surviving in wartime Barnsley - including a heartbreaking series of letters between a Barnsley woman and her fiancee who never returned home, and an illustrated fictional family based on people’s memories.
Visitors are invited to write postcards with their own stories and memorials to loved ones.
Louise Wright, collection assistant, said the collection grew organically through donations from the public - with almost all of the items on display being from Barnsley people.
“We’ve loved finding out about people’s family histories,” she said. “I think people really appreciate that there’s a permanent home for something to go along with its story and heritage.”
Coun Tim Cheetham, cabinet spokesman for place, said: “We are extremely proud and indebted to the many brave Barnsley men and women who suffered during wartime for a better future for us all.
“The exhibition is a celebration of them, their memories and their unwavering courage - that is difficult for us to even imagine.
“People will be fascinated by the stories told of Barnsley folk and get a real insight as to what life was like, both the highs and lows, when our country was at war.”