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Review: Young Members discuss the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Open-Air Museums

On 7th December 2020, Europa Nostra UK hosted their second Young Person’s Roundtable discussion. If you would like to read about the previous Roundtable ‘Climate Change and Heritage: A roundtable discussion with Justin Albert’, you can do so by clicking here.

The discussion was led by Lucy Hockley, of the Weald and Downland Living Museum. Lucy has worked in heritage learning and interpretation in a variety of settings. She has served a term of office on the Council of Europa Nostra and on the jury of the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra awards and is a current member of the Europa Nostra UK committee.

Lucy began the event by introducing the Weald and Downland Living Museum, explaining the unique development of the Open-Air Museum. Lucy explained that like a lot of Open-Air Museums, the Weald and Downland was formed by the relocation of buildings which had no future in their original setting. This is different to a collection of many museums that might come from an individual collector, for example. The buildings demonstrate a range of vernacular structures of relatively low status, which would have been lost if not acquired by the Museum.

The founders of the Museum set the site up

with the primary aim of education and they were educators, and this aim continues to today. Lucy explained the various events and programmes that the team had run over the years to improve the visitor experience and engage with diverse audiences. For all age groups, creating a memorable and multi-sensory experience was key to establishing lifelong supporters of the Museum.

Alongside visitor experiences, the Museum also many learning opportunities including two MSc Programmes in Building Conservation and Timber Building Conservation.

Following Lucy’s introduction, there was a discussion about how the Museum has been managing in the current pandemic, and their plans for the immediate future. Lucy outlined that like many other museums at this time, the Weald and Downland team are keen to continue offering as much as possible, as we have done last summer. Despite the challenging time and cancelled events, Lucy stated that the heritage sector needed to persevere as there are also important wellbeing aspects of enjoying visits to heritage sites and “children deserve a step towards normal and enjoyment” after all they have been through this year. Lucy quoted the maxim used so often over the summer that the aim had to be to

“sanitise your site, not the visitor experience”,

emphasising the importance of a positive experience, even in these challenging times. She also advised being prepared for changes in circumstances, highlighting that in order to run an activity often two different versions of it might need to be planned in order to hope to be able to go ahead with one of them. Overall, the discussion was very positive and constructive, demonstrating how resilient and inventive the museum sector is.

Following the discussion about pandemic planning and impacts, Lucy was asked about how young people interested in a career in the heritage and museum sector could find jobs, particularly in light of the pandemic which has had serious impacts on working experience, volunteering and apprenticeship opportunities. Lucy expressed that whilst this is an incredibly challenging time for the sector, and there were fewer jobs, that young people should not give up on areas that interest them.

Even at times when visits might not be possible, it may be possible to stay motivated and find innovative ways of making contacts, such as through social media and LinkedIn.

Lucy expressed the view that heritage organisations are often smaller than they seem, and may welcome a personal email offering volunteering help. She highlighted the value of young people’s insights and reaching target audiences. Lucy reminded all the young members that they would be a valuable addition to the heritage sector.

Our next roundtable will be on the Society for the Protection of Ancient Building’s Old House Project, with a discussion on sensitive repair and conservation of a heritage and risk building.

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