We hope you enjoy our monthly posts focusing on the people behind the Museum. This month, Julian Bell, Museum Curator; explains the Museum’s role in keeping our rural past alive.
Working as Museum Curator at the Weald & Downland Living Museum, it is my responsibility to look after the museum’s collection which not only includes the iconic historic buildings but also over 16,500 artefacts.
I’ve always been inspired by history and have fond memories of family trips to Hadrian’s Wall and Beamish Musuem, near where I grew up in County Durham. After completing an MA in Museum Studies I had the opportunity to work in various museums including Oldham Museum in Manchester, the V&A in London and the Maritime Museum in Greenwich before coming to the Weald & Downland Living Museum in 2002.
The Museum really is a last resort for at risk rural buildings and the trades, crafts and stories associated with them. When the Museum started in the 1960s, Roy Armstrong and his team were horrified by the destruction of these historic buildings. Traditional town centres were being bulldozed to make space for modern alternatives and no thought was given to what was being knocked down.
It quickly became apparent that a lot of the contents and parts of the buildings also needed rescuing and preserving. The team were very forward thinking in their approach to this and recorded and documented each artefact, which made my job much easier when I joined.
Items in the artefact collection represent the rural trades and crafts that were significant to the buildings being rescued, such as brick making and laying, carpentry, glazing, thatching, stonemasonry and plumbing. Many artefacts also relate to the rural communities that occupied the buildings and how they lived. For example, we have tools for traditional trades such as agriculture, tinsmithing, dairying, milling, blacksmithing and horse harnessing. You can also see many of these in use within the historic buildings on site including the workshops, the mill, smithy, bakehouse and forge.
These items might not have held much monetary value at the time, however when it comes to learning about our past they are rich in stories and significance.
As well as being a custodian of the collection, an important part of my job is to research and uncover the social history behind artefacts. From a pair of brothers from Pyecombe who upcycled World War I gun barrels into pioneering shepherding hooks to the fascinating life of a local cooper called Thomas Swain, we have stories, photos and records to help give added meaning to the collection. Even items that might not be inherently aesthetic or unusual still hold personal stories that help connect us to our past; it is these supporting stories that make our collection so special and unique.
One of my favourite items from the collection is ‘the green man jetty bracket’, a functional building support, carved with a face of the spiritual green man which embodies both craft skills and symbology.
The artefacts in our collection generally don’t tend to be more than 150-200 years old, which is testament to how worn and used objects once were. Tools weren’t easily replaceable and so our ancestors had to become experts at upcycling and repairing to make them last as long as possible.
The artefacts collection dates up to circa World War II when mechanisation became more prevalent with tractors being used instead of horses and power tools replacing handcrafts.
In 2002, a purpose built store was opened to house the then 14,000 items in the artefact collection. This enabled the full collection to be accessed and enjoyed by both staff and our visitors for the first time, giving the pieces a new lease of life. This need for a store and conservation space led to the creation of the Downland Gridshell, designed by the late architect Edward ‘Ted’ Cullinan, an award-winning building in its own right. The store also enabled us to give guided tours of the Museum’s artefact collection, which had been taking place daily since 2003 up until last year when we were all impacted by the pandemic.
Our collection really is relevant to all of us and represents a not too distant past; our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents may have lived in some of these buildings and used these tools. Visiting the Museum provides a wonderful opportunity to discover more about your own family history in a beautiful setting.
The Museum is running a programme of Historic Life Weekends that will explore different topics and themes. Click here to visit our What’s On page and check out our upcoming events. Entry to the Musuem is by pre-booked tickets only inline with government guidance.