The Weald & Downland Living Museum is an open-air museum consisting of historic houses which have been relocated and reconstructed in several acres of countryside near Chichester.
We began in the visitor’s centre, and I noted the exhibition design, minimal contemporary mountings in natural wood, grouping historical objects – mostly tools and working equipment – by taxonomies of use and trade. There were also a number of digital interactive displays, many based on traditional skills, presenting them as games (see the example of the sawing). It was interesting to see the presentation of hand-skills as ‘gamified’ exhibits.
I was hugely impressed by the attention to detail in the house reconstructions and the clarity of information given about the process of relocating/reconstructing each building. For example, the Medieval Cottage was reconstructed, using traditional building methods, from the findings of an archaeological dig. The process of building this house is itself a research process and outcome – creating a reconstruction from available evidence and a process of testing and experimentation. The same methods, using traditional tools, materials and processes, is also used in the creation of reconstruction furniture and furnishings in each house – the advantage of using reconstructions is it allows the visitor to touch and handle the objects, giving a tactile experience.
I also noted the garden of each house were planted with traditional plants, together with information about what each was used for (food, medicine, dyes, pigments etc). What was really surprising about the house reconstructions is that they allowed you to experience the spaces as they would have been at the time of their construction. I noted with particular interest that there were no artificial lights (except on staircases), and the window coverings were also accurate for the periods (from none at all to oil cloths to small panes of glass), so you got to experience the rooms at the light levels they would have been lived in, I wondered how people managed to work in such low light conditions (and it was a very sunny day)? It suddenly made me realise how almost all the historic houses I had visited before had been added to and adapted over the years and this was possibly the first time I had experienced a historical space in its original form. Another example of this was the open main space in the early Tudor farmhouse. I’ve visited a lot of Tudor houses over the years and all these do explain that the upper floors and chimneys were usually added later, so the chance to experience the space as would have originally been built was striking – I noted the open fire in the centre had blackened the thatch and walls in the upper part of the room but not so much in the lower part, suddenly getting an insight into the practicality of having high ceilings to allows the smoke from the fire to escape.
My main reason for the trip to the Weald & Downland was the Historic Textiles Weekend taking place. Being facilitated mainly by the Tudor Group (a historical re-enactment society), it was exciting to see so many textile processes and techniques being demonstrated, lacemaking, ruff-making, tailoring, darning, printing, embroidery, dying, flax processing, spinning and weaving. I had some wonderful conversations about technical aspects of different techniques, including a tip about using 19th century needles for fine embroidery. I’ve been thinking a lot about the demonstration of processes and techniques throughout this trip, along with the reconstructed spaces I encountered, I’ve been struck by how physical experience can be extremely effective in communicating complex ideas but how it can also make more esoteric and abstract ideas more intelligible. I’m thinking in particular of my encounter with the processing of flax. Flax is the plant from which linen is made – a vital basic fabric before the wide introduction of cotton and the base fabric for a lot of embroidery, including Blackwork. Flax processing involves thrashing and beating the plant fibres so they are pliable (breaking and scutching), then working them through spiked combs to separate and soften them (heckling), before they are spun (in itself very tricky and hard on the hands – I’ve tried it myself) and then woven into cloth. I know hand spinning and weaving to be a slow process (and I’ve mainly been working with wool on modern spinning wheels and hand looms) but I hadn’t realised quite how much effort and skill is needed to prepare flax fibres. It was a particularly hot day and as I stood watching someone breaking and scutching flax plant fibres, I realised the time and sheer physical labour involved producing this fabric was the reason for its value – something I had read about, and in part experienced myself, but never really fully absorbed.
The Weald & Downland (and the Tudor Group) had a notably different approach to experiential interpretation – its staff and volunteers engaged with the visitors in third person, that is, they kept their own identity and were not required to adopt a period persona, or indeed wear period dress if they were uncomfortable doing so (their reasoning is that you cannot properly wear cloths you are uncomfortable in). This approach is in contrast to the staff at Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm, who all adopted period personas, and in comparing the two approaches I noticed that it did something almost counter intuitive to my experience. Noting that this is my personal impression, I felt the approach of the Weald & Downland to be a more ‘authentic’ experience, while I felt there was something artificial in the period personas adopted by the guides at Mary Arden’s Farm. It might have been the use of ‘old fashioned’ language or knowing I was interacting with a character that I found to be ‘distancing’, while the ability to have a conversation naturally with the staff at the Weald & Downland somehow reduced that distance, giving the opportunity to focus on the process, technique or space, the acknowledgement of that this was a reconstructed experience somehow allowed for a greater feeling of ‘genuineness’.
What is interesting about the Weald & Downland (and the Tudor Group) is their use of reconstruction as a method of research into historical practices of making. As the Weald & Downland state in their interpretation strategy:
“We do not claim to recreate or re-enact the past. What we hope to present is one possibility, based on the best possible evidence… We are alway open to new evidence and developments and accept that some aspects of the past remain a matter of opinion.”