1924 – 2014
Museum Director and Curator
Frank Atkinson was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, the oldest son of Ernest, a plumber, and Elfrida, a teacher. He attended Barnsley Grammar School and progressed to Sheffield University where he graduated with a science degree. He completed his national service as a paratrooper.
Atkinson began his professional career as an assistant at the Wakefield Museum, rising quickly to become its Director aged 25, then the youngest museum director in the country. In 1953, he moved to take charge of the Halifax Museums and Art Gallery and, in 1958, he took the helm at the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, a prestigious art museum operated by an endowed charity.
Frank Atkinson will forever be associated with creation and development of the Beamish open-air museum near Stanley in County Durham, inspired by the folk museums of country life Atkinson had seen on a trip to Scandinavia in 1952. It took tremendous energy, dedication and imagination to deliver Beamish to the public as a first-class visitor attraction with a mission to educate and inform. Beamish, styled “the living museum of the North”, is in effect a series of working exhibits spread over 300 acres capturing scenes from everyday life in times past, the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s, using objects collected and preserved by the museum. These scenes – of farms, collieries, pit villages, homes, tramways, shops, railways and the like – animated by people dressed in costume, are highly evocative and succeed in bringing the past to life for visitors. The theatrical aspect of Beamish is underpinned by large research collections of objects and photographs.
Atkinson led the campaign to establish the museum before a formal working party was established in 1966. He was appointed Director when the museum opened in 1970, thereafter working tirelessly to build exhibits and collections until his retirement in 1987. Atkinson is an outstanding example of a philanthropist who voluntarily gave of himself, of his time, energy and imagination, so that others might benefit. In this way, he made Beamish a magnet for philanthropy and many others donated cultural objects or cash to realize his vision. The museum was incorporated as a charity on 22nd March 2006. Previously it was under the control of the Beamish Joint Committee, an organisation led by several Local Authorities in the North East. It is widely acknowledged that Atkinson had an “extraordinary foresight and dedication to capturing and preserving a rapidly disappearing way of life, that today’s visitors can experience their heritage at Beamish”. Atkinson was awarded a CBE in 1995 for services to the development of museums. He lived in Ovingham on Tyne, Northumberland, and during his retirement served as Commissioner of the Museums and Galleries and as an unpaid advisor to many cultural organizations, including the Thomas Bewick Birthplace Trust.