Weald & Downland Living Museum ready for big reopening

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

Director Simon Wardell
Director Simon Wardell

“But we are keeping everything crossed that everything is now heading in the right direction,” says Simon as he prepares for yet another reopening – one which, he hopes, will last.

The Weald & Downland Living Museum reopens its gates to the general public from Monday, April 12 – a chance to enjoy the museum’s exquisite outdoor site set in 40 acres within the beautiful South Downs National Park. The museum’s café, shop and historic houses will remain closed. However takeaway options will be available. The buildings on the site will open on May 17.

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“We have got a measured approach from the government which helps in the circumstances.

“It gives us time to plan ahead rather than just reacting on the hoof. And we are in the fortunate position that we have got this wonderful site which means that we can welcome people back to as a green space.”

The museum can reopen with confidence. One of the reasons – one of the key strands in its income – is that its members have stayed loyal.

“We have had fantastic support from our members through their membership fee, the fact that they have stood by us. A handful have not renewed, but the vast majority have stayed with us.

“We have got about 5,000 members, and one of the main strands that keeps us alive and well in terms of revenue generation is the fact that their loyalty has been absolutely outstanding.

“Our communication with our members has always been at the forefront of our thinking, just keeping them up to date with what the museum’s position is. We have got an endowment trust in the wings to step in, and we have not been asking our members to fund-raise on the museum’s behalf, but we have said to them that what has been absolutely key has been their membership renewal.”

It has been an astonishing year: “I was just remembering that it was early spring last year that we were starting to shut down, and my first thought is just where has that year gone.

“It has just flown by, but it was a year when we have had to be very decisive and prompt in our decision-making in deciding to close when we did and in deciding to cut costs when we did.

“Once we reopened last summer, one of the things that was clear was the very high regard in which the museum is held. We have got a fantastic collection, and it was clear that it was such a tonic for a lot of our visitors to return and see things that they are so familiar with. With the restrictions in place, it was clear that the fact that we have got a big open space was going to be a very big advantage for us. From June to October, we could see that it was going to be very positive, and we were able to make changes to our interpretation.

“There was a lot more stewarding outside and a lot of the volunteers were taking on roles that I would describe as much more meet and greet, just making sure that people kept to social distancing and that everyone was safe.”

It worked – and so did the concept of timed tickets, ensuring a much better flow of people: “I am mindful that people might be wanting to go just on the spur of the moment, but certainly the evidence that we now have is that we are all much more used to pre-planning our activities. It is not so much of a chore. We are all definitely much less spontaneous, but hopefully it is a win-win situation with us, that people end up getting a much better visitor experience as a result.”

But there is no room for complacency: “I am very proud of the fact that as an independent museum we have weathered the Covid storm.”

and we have demonstrated financial resilience as an organisation. But we do have to rely on our visitors coming through the door. The vast majority of our income comes from that… so we definitely do need a successful summer season.

“But I am quietly confident. We have weathered a very challenging time, but the period of opening for the four months last year demonstrated that we have got something that people are very keen to come back to see.”