FRANK ATKINSON, the man whose vision created Beamish museum, one of the North-East's most popular visitor attractions, has died aged 90.

He had been suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease and died in the early hours of this morning at Wellburn House care home in Ovingham, Northumberland.

Dr Atkinson, who had three sons and five grandchildren, was founding director of the North-East’s living history museum.

The Northern Echo:

Born on April 13, 1924, in Barnsley, Yorkshire, he was also a former curator of the Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle.

During this time he developed a practical approach to the museum's collection which marked him out as a man ahead of his time.

He believed the best way for museums to teach visitors and to enthuse them about a subject was to offer a hands-on experience.

Some of the Bowes Museum's 'secondary' objects would not be catalogued or numbered so they could be handled by visitors or used in demonstrations.


The Northern Echo:

BEGINNINGS: A collection of peat spades arrived at the Bowes Museum in December 1967. They had been in common usage in the Yorkshire and Durham dales at the start of the 20th Century.


Dr Atkinson also passionately believed in the idea of an open-air museum dedicated to the recent past as a counter-point to the Bowes Museum's classical collection of French and Spanish fine art. His idea was supported by the Bowes Committee.

In 1966 Dr Atkinson was appointed to a regional working party to examine options for an "Open Air Museum for the purpose of studying, collecting, preserving and exhibiting buildings, machinery, objects and information illustrating the development of industry and the way of life of the North of England".

He lost no time and selected Beamish Hall, the former regional headquarters of the National Coal Board, as the site for his vision.

Dr Atkinson quit the Bowes in 1970 to become the director of Beamish. The social history collections housed at Barnard Castle were transferred to the hall.


The Northern Echo:

WAGON WORKS: The coal wagon at the entrance to Beamish marks the start of the visitor experience. Frank Atkinson is pictured with it in 1987.


It was his decision to call the new attraction Beamish, rather than the North of England Open Air Museum, because he feared the stuffy image of a museum would put families off.

He needn't have worried. When Beamish opened its doors on May 4, 1971, people queued for hours just to get in.

Forty-three years later, Beamish is now an award-winning tourist draw, spanning over 300 acres, recreating life in the region during the early 1800s and 1900s.


The Northern Echo:

ALL WEIGHED UP: Weighing out items in the apothecary’s shop at Beamish Hall Museum in 1970.


His youngest son, Neil Atkinson, 46, described his father as ‘an unstoppable force’ whose vision and determination had left a huge legacy for the area.

He said: “When Dad started something he always saw it through. When Beamish was only an idea, he went on this merry-go-round of village halls, Women’s Institutes and factories, asking for anything they could spare.

“Some people didn’t see the value in it, but Dad had this principle of lifelong learning and he knew where very item would go and that people would appreciate it and learn more about the North-East.

“We are all just so proud of him and the legacy he has left behind. Every bit of that place is him and the devotion he had to it is reflected in the hundreds of thousands of people who visit every year.

“The work will carry on, of course, with the amazing staff at Beamish. It’s a living museum and it will continue to grow just as Dad wanted.”

Last year, on Valentine’s Day Dr Atkinson celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary with his wife, Joan.

His family is planning a private burial with a public memorial service to be held in the New Year.