by Lucy Hockley
“Celebrating 50 years since the first opening of the Weald & Downland Living Museum was not as originally planned, as 2020 changed for everyone. The Museum team had to adjust arrangements for this anniversary weekend last September, yet we were very grateful to be open and mark this milestone. Central to the Museum’s mission from its earliest days to today has been the objective ‘to stimulate public interest in ancient crafts, trades and manufactures’. This happens in a huge variety of ways, and is also the reason from first hearing about the formation of the HCA, over a decade ago, the Museum team has been keen to collaborate and support this likeminded organisation.
“The simple point of raising awareness can be powerful in so many ways. It may be a child seeing a skilled craftsperson at work with the chance to ask their question directly and, when possible, have a go. It is always exciting to hear from adult whose craft work choices were sparked by a Museum visit. When we had low-level thatching frames for school groups alongside thatchers working on two roofs at the Museum, young people clearly did see the skill in a different light due to their hands-on experience. One lad even offering to go up to help the thatchers out! Around the same time, the Museum hosted an ‘alternative careers forum’ focussed on the heritage sector and craft skills, which was quickly fully subscribed by adults, with a strand for secondary age pupils woven into the day. In a normal year the Museum has well over 120,000 visitors each year, with many opportunities for connection on-site as well as in outreach work.
“Our artefact collection is an inspiration as well as a reference point for tools, particularly those of our region and rural occupations. Of course the historic buildings themselves tell of so many crafts skills in the past and today, both from the activity of workshops and also in the construction of the buildings themselves. Throughout the year, and particularly in a series of Historic Life Weekends, we also have demonstrators at the Museum who share their own craft skills.
We understand the value of informal conversations with depth of knowledge sharing that comes from them, for the demonstrators amongst themselves also. Topics in the Historic Life Weekend series vary each year, with our Heritage Crafts and Skills at Risk weekend planned (again) this August. This is in collaboration with the HCA and will also have a linked exhibition.
“Beyond sparking interest and conversations, the Museum has offered, for over 25 years, the next steps – workshops in a vast variety of skills. These range from 1 day to 5 day courses, including many skills on the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, to University masters programmes in Timber Building Conservation or Building Conservation. Perhaps therefore also no surprise that when the producers of The Repair Shop were looking for a venue, the Museum was on their shortlist and filming continues in Court Barn today.
“The Museum experience is not static; experiences will change daily and we try to ensure that essential maintenance and building conservation work happens in visitor view and with discussion whenever possible. This season work is underway on the House from North Cray, a 15th century hall house, which stands in the market square. As with each exhibit building, this house is only at the Museum as there was no future for it where it originally stood and was faced with demolition. In fact, in this case it has already been dismantled by the local council and lay in storage for some years, before it was offered to the Museum in its very early years.
“Over the years the Museum has been open, there has both been a growth in interest in heritage craft skills and an awareness number of craft skills at risk.HCA members will be only too aware of this also. The many benefits of traditional skills are being recognised rightly for their contribution to an urgently needed sustainable future, as well as their wellbeing aspect. That inspiration needs to continue with many individuals and organisations coming together to raise awareness of heritage crafts skills, their uses today and for the future.”
The Weald & Downland Living Museum is an independent museum and educational charity located in West Sussex, just north of Chichester. More details about the Museum can be found on the website www.wealddown.co.uk or via social media.
A resource that might be of interest are articles in the Museum magazines, which can all be found online here, with a few recent examples mentioned below: