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Ruhr Mining Museum: An Institution of the Post-industrial Society

Dhiraj Kumar Nite (dhirajnite@gmail.com) teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi. 

The advanced industrial society is a pioneer of industrial and mining museums. These museums aware us of our socio-emotional dislocation, which the people in the old industrial town experienced in the midst of shifting industrial geography, and equally educate us about the socio-environmental costs, which humankind has been confronted with. Here, the author shares his observations on the Ruhr Mining Museum (RMM), which he visited during his short sojourn at Essen in Germany in November 2013. 

Ruhr Mining Museum at Essen. Courtesy: Dhiraj Nite. 

The Ruhr Mining Museum (RMM), developed in 2010-12, is one among a couple of industrial heritage centres in the world. It is situated at Essen in the Rhineland, which was the capital of coal mining and metallurgical industry in Germany in particular and continental Europe. . Coal mining has practically stopped in this region. In 1900, Germany was among the major coal-producing countries (100 million tons a year) and the Ruhr coalfield had achieved the feat of the deepest and the most mechanised mining, as it were known, in the world since the 1930s. One of such coal mines – having been the deepest (1650 meter) and known for producing 12,000 tons coal per day (nearly 4.5 million tons per year) by employing simply 5000 workers in the late 1930s - hosts the Ruhr Mining Museum.

The RMM tells its story with the help of good numbers of historic artefacts, and an equally informative collection of photographs, posters, digital resources, and short documentary films. In addition, the original site of the deepest coalmine, its machinery, and workshop become part and parcel of the historic artefacts, which are at the disposal of RMM. I explored three sections in the RMM. One deals with the history of ancient, medieval, enlightenment, and modern industrial society, as it were, at Essen. The second relates to the emergence, growth and impact of modern mining in the world. And, the third presents an intimate encounter with the remains of mining workplaces, workshops, coal-washery, and coke-manufacturing plant.

Digital resources at RMM. Courtesy: Dhiraj Nite.

Digital resources at work in Ruhr Mining Museum. Courtesy: Dhiraj Nite. 

The maintenance and integration of the remains of old mining sites, including shaft, coal carrying and loading machinery, and other workshop and plant are invaluable components of the RMM. Here, the children of the post-industrial society increase their familiarity with the aspect of industrialisation, which so far they would have studied only through pages of school literature and fading memories of the parents/grandparents. My visit to the site has been exciting, for I find such sophisticated method of mining missing on the Indian coalmines even in the twenty-first century. The sophistication in mining method should yet not make us obtuse, RMM and its tour guide suggest, from noticing its dark-side. Colliery management adopted scientific management and fordism at par excellence. Intricate mechanisation accompanied two more initiatives. It required workers not to have been seen around the main gate of coalmine. This practice conveyed an impression to the visiting stockholders and traders that the production depended on a minimal use of human labour. Workers in the workshop had to hide themselves, whenever the manager walked in the workshop. The practice meant to sustain an illusion of perfection in automation.

The managerial self-delusion of automation did not obviate work-hazards from impairing and killing colliers. Colliers trusted their own tacit skill and sought blessing of the St. Barbara, a female deity, whose image was engraved at the mouth of coalmine. It reminded me the Khadan-Kali cult between the colliers in eastern India. Colliers invoked her favour daily while entering into and getting off the coalmine. The religious-ritual in the workplace may have helped the colliers protect themselves from certain injuries but there were other problems as well. The collier employed at the pit-mouth, where coal-tubs got unloaded, invariably bore the brunt of deafening noise. He had solace in a better wage paid to him. His wife was proud of her husband being employed in the ‘safest’ and best paid occupation that had been available to the production worker, narrates the museum guide. 

St. Barbara, the female deity, whose image was engraved at the mouth of coalmine. Courtesy: Dhiraj Nite. 

The story of mining hazards further developed in the second section of RMM. This story unfolded in a five floor tall coal washery. It boasted the fact of maximum mechanisation. Merely 16 workers ran the entire washery, devoted to wash 6000 tons coal per day. One of its floors, now, houses the section on world history of coal mining and its contemporary practices. Not surprisingly, it talks of the employment of child labour, female, and crude technology in the so-called ‘illicit’ mining in India, which presents a stark contrast to what I described before. Notably, it tells the history where coal enjoyed the status of black-diamond during industrialisation and now received notoriety of being the enemy number one, because it is, as a fossil fuel, the chief source of pollution in our environment. Once again, one story refers to the burning of underground coal in the Jharia and Raniganj coalfields. The local inhabitants offer symbolic sacrifice of clay horses for own protection, highlights the RMM. Here, an Indian learns about the popular culture of own country at a distant museum. Ah!

In presenting the history of Essen and the Rhineland from the Palaeolithic to contemporary times, the third section draws our attention to a few concerns of the post-industrial society. The latter successfully persuaded the political and business authorities for closing down the source of fossil fuel and switch over to eco-friendly solar and wind energy. The last working coalmine in Essen would be closed in 2018. The problem of lay off and unemployment confronted the post-industrial humankind in the region. The government, at one time, encouraged the automobile industry to open plants in the region. It employed 5000 workers. The lack of appropriate new skill made the idea of factories a non-starter. The RMM as an industrial heritage institution gave an impetus to tourism in the region and offers new education in industrial heritage. The planners are not sure how far such efforts would meet the demand for employment. The dream of green parks, fields and blue water to become available, following the closure of coalmines, is falling short of satisfying other existential necessities of post-industrial humankind, tells one curator and my friend Dr Stefan Siemer. The feeling ingrained in this exposition explains why Ms Merkel, the leader of Conservative Christian Party, prefers to ally with the social democrat than the green party for the formation of a government in 2013.

Varieties of coal on display at the Ruhr Mining Museum. Courtesy: Dhiraj Nite. 

Meanwhile, Dr Siemer and I passed through a corner of museum focused on Fascism at Essen. My guide tells me: Now, he won’t speak. I simply glimpsed of posters without making any effort to understand German captions. We were about to finish off this corner, Siemer spoke: “You can see that the working people resisted the fascist. The Ruhr region was the heartland of workers militancy in Germany.” It got me to chuckle on this post-fascism narrative. Consider it. Luisa Passerini describes in her book Fascism in Popular Memory (1987) a possibility of incorporation of the working people in the fascist design before the onset of anti-fascist partisan movement in 1942; and the fact of only subterranean critique of it in the cultural realm by the traditionally advanced-section of the working masses.

The corner preceding the fascist one belonged to the era of left politics of working-classes. Siemer told me that Marx was not from this part of Germany nor his original ideas had much influence on the working people. The latter fought for social democracy as opposed to the Marxian idea of destructive class warfare. The point briefly marks off the history, for Marx was very much the founding member of the First International and its ideas called Social Democracy than Communism in those days.  

The concern and anxiety of post-industrial humanity in continental Europe manifests a lot through the way the RMM is curated. Needless to say, coal is yet not an enemy in the industrialising societies in India, China and South Africa.   

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