• Grace Millar

Decay and simulation: New Directions in Coal Mining in the UK and Japan

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

At the site of the Mikawa mine in Kyushu Japan, a former manrider that had driven people down the drift sits rusting. Nearby other buildings, such as the former bath house are covered with greenery that has grown up since the mine closed in 1997. Mikawa was one of the Miike mines and the remaining sites are part of a world heritage site dedicated to key aspects of Japan’s Meiji industrial revolution.

A life-sized dummy in a rusting man rider

Mikawa Mine drift

On 9 December, 2019, the ‘New Directions in Coal Mining in the UK and Japan’ group travelled to Kyushu to visit the sites of the Miike mines. The UK delegation included former miners, academics and those involved in mining heritage (with overlap in each of the categories). The longstanding relationship between the Japanese and British coalfields could be seen throughout our visit. The girder of a winding tower had the name of a Scottish steel company stamped on it. We had made long journey to get to Kyushu and the machinery we were standing in front of had made a similar journey decades earlier.

The group had toured similar mining sites in the UK in July of that year and comparisons were inevitable. There were similarities — a former substation that had been key to the mining industry had been turned into a very modern office for the headquarters of a local company that made traffic lights. The complicated gentrification that takes place when a lot of money is invested to turn an industrial work site into shops, offices or flats, would be familiar to anyone who is interested in industrial heritage.

Most unfamiliar to the UK visitors was the presentation of former mine sites themselves. The buildings were rusting, grass was growing between bricks and vines grew over buildings. Those who work in heritage in the UK were particularly surprised, as they put considerable effort is put into ensuring the sites are maintained as if they were still being used as mines. As a visitor, it was easy to make an assumption that these signs of time passing were an indication of a lack of resources and that the sites would not be presented like this if they could be presented in a way that pretended time had not passed since the closure. But that was a very limited assumption to be making. Time had passed since the mines had been functioning and we weren’t touring them as they had been then, but as they were now. Rust and greenery reminded us, rather than hid the passage of time.

Rusty mine machinery with greery growing around it

Mikawa Mine

After touring three pit sites, and a range of other sites associated with the coal industry, the group visited the Omuta Coal Industry and Science Museum. The building was very new, modern and represented the mining industry in a very differently from the former mining sites. A series of displays showed the growth of the coal industry, with particularly great miniatures. Then we moved to a small room intended to replicate going down a technologically advanced mine shaft. Once we ‘reached the bottom’ the door opened onto scenes from mines. These displays were both high tech themselves, and displayed mining as a high tech industry. The corridors were curved as if they were mines underground, but with plastic flooring, gleaming LED lights, and CCTV cameras looking down on us. The emphasis of the display was on the highly technical and advanced nature of the mining industry. Images of continuous miners and powered supports as impressive technology were entirely consistent with the rest of this bright and light display. The high technology simulation of mining in the Science Museum seemed far away from the former mining sites where grass grew everywhere.

‘Underground’ in the Omuta Coal Industry and Science Museum

For a group of people used to a very different set of norms about coal mining heritage, the division between the sites themselves, which were decaying, and the gleaming simulation seemed quite strange. At the national mining museums in the UK decay is minimised, buildings are restored and rust and plants are kept under control. The sort of simulation shown at the Omuta museum also exists within the UK museums, but it is integrated into the original sites. At the underground tour at the National Mining Museum of England, fibreglass is used to recreate a low roof and sound effects to recreate the effect of blasting. By bringing together simulation and the original buildings, UK mining museums give you much less sense of how much time has passed since these buildings were operating. Visiting Japanese former mining sites gives a real sense of the passage of time since the mines have closed. Constant weeding and protecting against rust, hides that sense of time at the UK mining sites.

An display at the Omuta Coal Industry and Science Museum

Fully representing industrial production at a former workplace is an impossible task. The noise, the smoke, the movement — none of these can properly be recreated in a heritage site, no matter how well preserved the buildings, or other aspects of material culture. One of the real strengths of international networks like this one is that your sense of what is natural gets upended and you can return with more curiosity to the decisions that were previously invisible. At former Japanese mining sites we got a sense of what is gained when heritage sites show rather than hide the passage of time since they were originally used. The high tech simulation of the Omuta museum also underscored the various ways simulation is used in the UK mining museums. Seeing other ways of managing both the remaining material culture of coal industry and simulations of coal production, gives a sense of how many choices are made at sites of deindustrialisation.