‘Utopian Realism’ is an exploration of rural utopianism, idealism and industrialism in the North East of England and Mid Wales by the artists Mair Hughes and Bridget Kennedy.

Friday, 1 July 2011

In the Robert Owen Museum

We had a great couple of days in the Robert Owen Museum. When we met up with Pat Brandwood the curator she started by taking us outside to show us the building across the road that originally housed the museum, its now a bank. Whilst we were outside she explained how Robert Owen isn't top of the pops with everyone in Newtown. some people feel he never gave anything to his home town, that he was always off making the lives of people elsewhere better. Others object to his anti religious stance. I couldn't help but feel this as we watched a man set up his soap box ready for a day's preaching on the street corner, in full view of the museum. It was too good an opportunity to miss, so I set up camera inside the reading room and took some footage of him. Filming the public is a tricky one so I went for an easy option and just filmed his box and his feet. He delivered his message in bursts of about 5 to 10 minutes, so he wasn't standing on the box all the time. I have a bit of footage I may use which captures the moment he steps up on to it.

I hasten to say I did not spend the whole day staring out of the window.... We came across lots of fascinating information about Robert Owen, not least his social hymns. Mair and I had a happy moment singing one of them to the tune of Auld lang syne, one of the more surreal moments in the project.

Another strange thing we came across was Owen's Psychograph, published in the Dublin Journal May 9th 1823 (see picture posted later). In the accompanying article Owen describes what this diagram represents:

“The slides are drawn out to the right in order to represent the extent or degree to which the faculties, qualities and propensities are at present cultivated. The dotted lines mark the extent or degree to which they will be extended or repressed under the ‘New System’ Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8 and 9 will be cultivated to a high degree, and Nos. 3, 6, 7, and 10 will be kept within due bounds, as marked by the dotted lines across the slides”.

Owen writes in "The Book of the New Moral World":

"the most intricate and important discoveries have been made in some of the physical sciences, while mental and moral sciences have remained in total darkness."

He was very concerned about the moral well being and general health of society, he made it his life's work to design systems for improving the lot of his fellow human beings. The confidence and conviction he writes with is astonishing.

In 1838 Thomas Sopwith and Robert Owen met (in Newcastle), below is Sopwith's opinion on Owen's radical ideas (from Sopwith's biography) :

" Mr. Owen is very communicative, and is willing to answer any questions, which he always does with a distinct reference to his particular views. His notions of classifications of society, although based in some measure on the results of his own practical experience at New Lanark, and comprising many very enlightened and benevolent arrangements, are yet so very Utopian that it is difficult to attribute his sanguine anticipations to any other cause than monomania or a delusion on that particular subject. Even those parts of his plans which may be considered practicable as improvements in the general habits and constitution of society, will, in my humble opinion, require the lapse of ages to be accomplished, — I would say two thousand years at least ; and this opinion I have always urged on Mr. Owen".

So, according to Sopwith, Owen certainly was ahead of his time!!

The museum has a beautiful print on silk of a plan for a cooperative living space, designed by Owen and called a Phalanstery. These designs never came to fruition, by the time Sopwith met Owen he had lost the fortune he made at New Lanark in America, trying to build a New Society in Indiana. There are a couple of variations on this design and mentions of a model of it in various writings, once again the miniaturisation of an idea or a dream.

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