Dreaming of hot metal: where industry and cultural history meet


Tourists taking a guided cycle tour through 5 kilometres of disused mine shafts in Mežica Lead and Zinc mine Museum. Photograph: Tomo Jeseničnik, Creative Commons licence


I was sharing a beer with a friend recently and she introduced me to a nice guy from Trbovlje who had spent 10 years working underground in the mines there. The conversation re-stirred an ongoing curiosity I have about technological heritage.  My own family history includes generations of underground miners in the North of England (for 500 years my people were troglodytes and metal workers).


The oldest mine in Slovenia is the mercury mine in Idrija. It was operational without interruption 1490 until relatively recently, with the closure impacting heavily on the local economy. Idrija Mine Museum has been nominated to become UNESCO world heritage protected site. The museum hosts a tour of the Anthony Shaft, taking visitors 100m below ground into mining tunnels dug 500 years ago. It gives me a tentative feeling of historical kinship knowing that when men from my family were underground digging for copper on the north west coast of Britain 500 years ago the men of Idrija were also underground. A similar kinship comes from knowing that post-industrial change is the very reason I was born in New Zealand instead of UK when my parents emigrated to find work. Id like to do that tour as a way of understanding both histories a little better.


At the peak of the mining industry in the 1950’s there were 46 collieries operating as well as 4 metal mines and a number of other quarries and mineral extraction operations. Now of those working coal and metal mines all except one Lignite colliery in Velenje have been closed for a mixture of economic and environmental reasons. (Incidentally that last working mine started exporting to Asia Pacific recently, its another loop of global economic connection that I could go home to New Zealand and then warm myself with coal dug from here…). In the heart of the black region both the Coal Mining Museum of Slovenia in Velenje  and Zasavje Museum, Trbovlje  have extensive exhibits documenting the history of coal mining, including preserved shafts, equipment and workers living quarters. The Museum practice focusses beyond the technical aspects of the industry to include the the impact that the mining industry has had on social history. As part of the inevitable post-industrial shift in economic production it is an intelligent civic trend to use the regional technological history for tourism and cultural education.


I also worked as a blacksmith when I was younger and still, literally, dream about the smell of hot metal and the alchemy of metallurgy; so when I follow my own curiosity the first places I want to find are the smithing and foundry museums and workshops. The same post-industrial focus towards tourism and education can be found in smithing and metalworking.


I found three blacksmiths museums: the first two were family businesses used by generations of smiths and still are completely operational; Podgoršek Blacksmith’s Museum, Pišece  and  Blacksmith Museum, Ljutomer. If you want to get your hands on the hammers and learn for yourself why the white hot metal stays in my heart it’s possible to book a day workshop (especially for young people) to learn some history and hands on skills with the metal.

Monument showing iron forgers at work, situated in the center of Kropa, a village in the community of Radovljica, Gorenjska, Slovenia. Photographer: Johann Jaritz, Wikimedia under GNU free documentation license



The third museum that specialises in iron work that I found is Kropa Iron Forging Museum, which is an entirely different kettle of fish to the other smaller museums. Kropa has a 700 year tradition with iron and blacksmithing and celebrates Smiths day every year on July 2nd.  An important part of the museum collection is 42 works by internationally recognised master blacksmith Joža Bertoncelj, which were donated in the 1970’s. I was never a master smith but I know enough to appreciate fine ironwork when I see it, with a body memory of forge heat and hammer percussion.  I will definitely go and visit this work while I’m in Slovenia. Another must see for me is the Iron-making, Mining and Palaeontologic Collection in Bucelleni-Ruard Manor, Jesenice which appeals specifically to my geeky specialist interest in metallurgy and mining.


If there is any doubt about how these histories help form our cultural identity traces of the heavy metal industry can be found in music too such as the Trbovlje Workers Band which was established in 1867 by employees of the mining company. After many evolutions and political upheavals, including miners strikes and the WWII occupation, that threatened the existence of the band it still exists today under the name Trbovlje Workers Music Brass Orchestra. The band cut its first record in 1968 and is still performing, touring and winning awards, including the Prešeren Award.  You can listen to some of their music online here.


And here, finally is a great piece of contemporary mining cultural heritage, the Velenje coal mining anthem  Kapo dol [hats off] by 6 PACK ČUKUR, 2008, on you tube. It made me grin.

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Come back to daylight safely,

Ali Bramwell






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