Frank Atkinson

The Man Who Made Beamish

Beamish Unlimited

Dr Frank Atkinson was the inspirational founder of Beamish, a true visionary, without whose amazing passion, determination and creativity the museum wouldn’t exist.

It is thanks to Frank’s extraordinary foresight and dedication to capturing and preserving a rapidly disappearing way of life that today’s visitors can experience their heritage at Beamish.

1924: Frank Atkinson was born in Yorkshire on 13th April. His father was a plumber and his mother a teacher, later to become headmistress of an infants’ school.

Early years: Frank’s interest in museums is said to have developed at the age of 10 when he collected his first fossil. By the age of 16 he had decided on a career in museums.

Frank went to Sheffield University to study science, before working at a coking and by-products firm near Wakefield. He worked weekends and occasional holidays at Wakefield Museum and Art Gallery, before getting a job as a museum assistant and later became director.

1952: While touring Norway and Sweden, Frank saw the success of “folk museums” and was inspired by the way they demonstrated a way of country life that was dying out. He decided England should have such a museum.

In the same year, Frank became director of Halifax Museums and Art Gallery, where he met future wife, Joan Peirson, a junior assistant.

1958: Frank successfully applied for the curatorship at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, Co Durham. He attended his first committee meeting seven days later and suggested there should also be a museum about the everyday recent past.

Frank’s adopted a “you offer it, we’ll collect it” policy to gathering the everyday objects and photographs the new museum would need.

1966: An idea was developed for a regional body to run the museum and a working party was set up. Frank acted as a museum adviser. He thought from the beginning that it was important to establish a museum that was both industrial and rural.

1968: The Friends of the Northern Regional Open Air Museum working committee was set up.

1970: Frank started work as Director of Beamish Museum. Three staff, along with many of the social history and industrial collections, moved into Beamish Hall.

1971: An introductory exhibition, showing the “Museum in the Making”, opened at Beamish Hall. In its first year, the museum attracted more than 50,000 paying visitors.

1987: Frank retired and Beamish was also named European Museum of the Year. Around this time Frank had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had a lung removed. He still attended the awards presentation for European Museum of the Year, which took place not long after his operation.

He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law by Durham University.

After his retirement, Frank was kept busy, including with the Thomas Bewick Birthplace Trust, by beginning to draft his autobiography, and by taking part in the work of the Museums and Galleries Commission.

1995: Frank was appointed CBE in the New Year’s Honours list.

Frank stayed in touch with his Museum and was President of The Friends of Beamish. He returned to celebrate Beamish’s 40th anniversary, the opening of Davy’s Fried Fish Shop and other occasions.

Frank passed away, aged 90, on 30th December 2014.

His museum continues to grow, with ambitious plans for the future, and remains a true legacy of the values and vision of its extraordinary founder.