Confidence high at Weald & Downland Living Museum

The signs are looking good for the Weald & Downland Living Museum near Chichester as we start to emerge from the restrictions.

Simon Wardell
Simon Wardell

Pre-booking is working well – and visitor numbers over the May Bank Holiday weekend reached normal pre-pandemic levels.

It’s all a question now of continuing to learn from the experience that we have all been through, as music director Simon Wardell explains.

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In its 50 years of existence, the Weald & Downland Living Museum has had to shut down three times – all within the past year under Simon’s watch.

But it has also been a time of reflection, and the reflection will help shape the future.

Pre-booking was introduced when the museum was able to open last year, and though it remains to be seen how everything pans out, Simon remains a big fan of pre-booking.

“It allows an organisation like ours to plan days far better with the knowledge the night before of what the numbers are that we have got pre-booked. It just makes everything easier to deliver.

“I think generally we have got to try to create something positive out of what has been one of the most challenging years certainly of my life. But the way the museum has been sought out by people as a place to take their families or just spend some time as an individual, wandering around, trying to reconnect with the past and reconnect with the outdoors has been great. It has brought a great deal of comfort to a lot of people.”

Expanding on that, the museum has been increasing the amount of stewarding on site. The historic buildings won’t be opening before June 21, assuming June 21 brings the anticipated lifting of restrictions.

“But in the meantime, the stewarding is helping to bring the collection to life through a number of open-air demonstrations.

“We have been doing quite a lot more in-person interpretation, and we have been delighted to have many more volunteers signing up in support of this. I think the whole experience has made me reset the focus we are putting on the collection. We have been doing more and more of this in-person interpretation in recent weeks.”

Generally the gradual approach to reopening has suited the museum well, Simon says: “I think we had an absence of confidence, of visitors feeling that a return to the venue was going to be safe and that they would feel safe bringing their friends and families, so it was good that we were able to open it as a green space initially.

“We had some low numbers at first, but it allowed us to bring the staff back and to bring the volunteers back at a time when they haven’t felt under pressure because of the lower levels of activity.

“And then with the second stage, we were able to open the café and the take-away and the shop, and that coincided with the Easter break and into the May Bank Holiday, and certainly over the May Bank Holiday we were back to normal numbers of visitors, the levels of a normal weekend for us.

“So I do think the confidence is returning now.

“But if we are reviewing the daily figures, I think people are now definitely sensing that the pandemic has lessened in terms of its threat and people are trying to get back to normal.”