Here’s some background to the museum for those of you who’ve never been before and there may also be a few things of interest for those who have. Sorry if it’s a bit long, but it’s a big place! I’ll put more specific stuff about the Ball weekend shortly.
The Weald & Downland Open Air Museum opened to the public in 1970 displaying a number of buildings which had been acquired, dismantled, brought back to the museum site and re-erected.
The museum founders were horrified at the wholesale destruction of traditional timber-framed buildings during the post-war redevelopments of the 1950s and 60s, with the last straw being ‘the fires of Crawley’ where many town centre buildings were knocked down and simply burnt to make way for soulless concrete replacements.
Rescuing buildings where they could, the museum founders established a precedent which continues to this day, that we are the museum of last resort for vernacular, (mainly) timber-framed buildings from the South East of England. We would prefer to see buildings maintained in their original location although where this isn’t possible, and where we are able to help, we will do so. When we re-erect a building we aim to return it to as close its original state as is possible, showing our visitors what it would have looked like and how the original dwellers would have existed. This means the removal of many layers of changes or additions which have taken place over the life of the building, which we then retain in our collections as part of the buildings history.
Initially, our buildings were displayed from an architectural point of view, showing all the constructional features without any interior fit-out. Over the years, and largely in response to responses from our visitors, additional layers of interpretation have been added including the set-dressing of interiors and development of gardens where appropriate, in order to paint a fuller picture of the people who occupied our buildings.
Those parts of our buildings which couldn’t be re-used, or items which we found within during dismantling, formed the nucleus of our artefact collection which now numbers some 16,000 objects. Ever since the first buildings were acquired, the general public has donated myriad items to the museum, covering building parts, trade tools, agriculture, land management, transport and a variety of other rural trades and crafts. The museum does not go out and acquire but waits until items are offered to us, and we are still actively collecting in this way today.
Where possible, items from the artefact collection are physically used around the site, so that visitors will see our team of heavy horses pulling carts, wagons and other agricultural equipment, the historic timber crane is in frequent use in our working Woodyard and many of the buildings contain collection items.
We are fortunate to occupy a 50 acre slice of the South Downs and as such we have space to carry out agricultural and woodland operations, which we do using traditional methods and equipment. The cereal crop we farm each year provides long straw which our associate master thatcher uses to repair some of our exhibit buildings; our coppice which is managed by the museum woodsman Jon Roberts, provides fuel for all the dwellings, bread ovens and charcoal burns.
The museum has also built up a comprehensive range of courses which are taught either by our own staff or professional tutors which cover historic building techniques, and traditional rural trades and crafts. A wide programme of events and demonstrations run throughout the year and cover topics as varied as rare breed animals, food, steam, and of course anything and everything woody!
We are open year round and as a totally independent museum, receiving no regular, external funding, we charge an entrance fee to our visitors, details of which can be found on the museum website along with information about all our other activities.