When Blists Hill Open Air Museum was unveiled in 1973, it was an immediate sensation as a radical new kind of living museum on a grand scale.
The site in Ironbridge Gorge, Shropshire, captured and preserved Britain’s industrial heritage and the way of life in late-Victorian Britain that was rapidly vanishing beneath the bulldozer of deindustrialisation and urban renewal.
Nearly half of Blists Hill’s 40 shops, businesses and homes were relocated brick-by-brick, timber-by-timber. Most came from areas of dereliction and demolition around the gorge, as well as Telford and the coalfields of east Shropshire.
Where whole buildings could not be saved, re-creations were built using the museum’s collection of original fittings and complete interiors.
As Blists Hill celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is now part of a variety of open-air museums that have been created across the UK.
These large-scale venues, with their recreated and restored historic buildings and social and industrial history collections are now a well-established feature of the UK museum landscape. Their focus on telling the stories of “ordinary” people is today a common approach across all types of museums.
But as these venues have matured, how far have they retained the spirit of their roots and the independence and innovation that marked their early days?
And have they simply evolved to become nostalgic theme parks (see box) that tell a sanitised version of British history, or do they offer something deeper and more meaningful to today’s visitors?
Whatever your view of open-air museums, there is no denying the fact that they attract big audiences.
More than 10 million people have visited Blists Hill since it opened 50 years ago, and the bigger sites regularly attract large numbers, with more than 750,000 visiting Beamish Museum in Stanley, County Durham, in 2022, making it the most visited attraction in north-east England.
But like all large-scale visitor attractions, they need heavy ongoing investment to keep their offer fresh and appealing.
BLIST’S HILL OPEN AIR MUSEUM
Blists Hill was an industrial site from the late 18th century until the 1950s. More than 700 men, women and children worked there at its peak in the 1850s. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust was created in 1967 to develop a museum at Blists Hill. Opening in 1973, it has grown significantly since then, with buildings added to recreate a small industrial town. The museum shows what life was like living and working in the East Shropshire Coalfield around 1900.
An ambitious project
Beamish has been working on the biggest development in its history, spending £20m on creating more than 25 new exhibits and attractions. This has included bringing a new era to the museum in the form of a 1950s town and a 1950s farm. It is also developing its 1820s area as part of the Remaking Beamish project.
Most open-air museums are independent, but for large capital projects such as this they need public support in the form of lottery funding. The National Lottery Heritage Fund has given the Remaking Beamish scheme £10.9m, for example.
Rhiannon Hiles, the chief executive of Beamish, is confident that her museum, and open-air museums in general, can stay relevant to today’s audiences.
“Open air museums are powerful, multi-faceted spaces with the ability to respond to and represent communities through immersive experiences,” she says.
“They are places for many things, including discussion, learning, resonance, tradition, escapism, entertainment and, most of all, places where people come together. Their relevance lies in their ability to tell community histories and stories in diverse, meaningful and valuable ways.”
One of the challenges is what types of stories open-air museums can tell, and who these stories appeal to.
“It can be easier, or more straightforward, to remember the ‘good times’ and gloss over difficult or more diverse stories,” Hiles says. “But as open-air museums evolve, they can highlight and address hidden and more challenging points in history and help to explore contemporary issues.”
For Hiles, this includes topics such as colonialism, empire and climate change.
It can be easier, or more straightforward, to remember the ‘good times’ and gloss over difficult or more diverse stories
“Open-air museums provide the opportunity to relate historical facts and stories to meaningful discussions around colonialism and empire, using collections in more innovative ways and making positive choices in the stories being told and objects being used,” she says.
“Where better placed to do this than in an open-air museum telling the history of a region built on industrial heritage, representing trade, shipping, transportation, economic growth and decline?
“And in a region built on coal, it is our responsibility to ensure our open-air museum in the north of England contributes positively to discussion on climate issues, ensuring sustainable operations. And consider ways to represent coal-mining heritage in the context of the impact this has had in the past and into the future .”
A sense of meaning
Thinking about what an open-air museum could look like in the future and the stories it can tell is a priority for National Museums NI, which is planning to redevelop Ulster Folk Museum.
The venue was founded in the 1950s to provide a sense of meaning in a world that was undergoing fast and dramatic societal and technological change.
The aim of the Reawakening the Ulster Folk Museum project is to reconnect with the founding ethos of the museum, which opened to the public in 1964, offering the people of Ulster a place to learn about their heritage and find connection to the land, to community and to themselves.
“The issue of how to remain relevant is a key challenge for many open-air museums as quite often they interpret a fixed point in history which is gradually becoming more distant and beyond living memory,” says Aaron Ward, the head of audience development at National Museums NI.
“One option to address this challenge is to extend the collection and its interpretation into more recent historical periods, thus making it easier for people to establish links between the forgotten past, the recent past and the present.
ULSTER FOLK MUSEUM
In the early 1960s, inspired by the vision of geographer and archaeologist Emyr Estyn Evans (1905-89), a cottier’s house in Magilligan was moved to Belfast and rebuilt, marking the beginning of the Ulster Folk Museum (above). More than 60 years later, National Museums NI, which runs the site, has launched a £50m plan to ‘reawaken’ the museum and expand its role as a heritage and environment resource. In 2022, the museum attracted 83,300 visitors.
“As we seek to reinvest in the Ulster Folk Museum, however, we are opting for a more fluid approach to the passage of time which actively encourages the cross-pollination of ideas between past and present and reconnects people with what the museum’s founding director, George Thompson, described as the ‘long continuum of day-to-day life’.”
The aim is to do this by creating new partnerships with local organisations, including those focused on the environment and wellbeing.
“By interpreting the museum in this way rather than as a fixed point in history, we believe that we can reawaken the museum’s more radical and communitarian roots and link this to ideas and actions that help counter the contemporary threats posed to the wellbeing of society, the individual and the environment,” says Ward.
“Of course, the challenge in all of this is being able to change perceptions of what an open-air museum is, or could be. In a much-loved sector, being able to navigate change over the coming decades will be critical.”
The project is expected to cost about £50m and just over £1m has been secured from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to progress the scheme.
St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff has already been through a big redevelopment, a £30m scheme that won the Art Fund Museum of the Year award in 2019. The venue, part of Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales, is the most visited heritage attraction in Wales.
“The museum was established in 1942 and was part of that focus on conserving rural life, but it’s reinvented itself,” says Nia Williams, the director of learning and public programmes at Amgueddfa Cymru.
“In the 60s and 70s, it became more of a museum for industrial Wales, then post-industrial Wales, and was then broadened to include all communities, and be a museum for the people, by the people.”
Visitors to the museum today are attracted to the 40-plus historical buildings that have been transported from across Wales and re-erected and set within 100 acres of parkland.
But they also come to participate in a wide range of craft skills, including quilting, pottery, stone-carving and woodworking, developed through partnerships with makers and community organisations, with a focus on supporting people’s wellbeing.
A range of partners are involved, including The Wallich, which supports homeless people; the Innovate Trust, which provides opportunities for disabled adults; and Age Cymru, a national charity for older people in Wales.
ST FAGANS NATIONAL MUSEUM
St Fagans National Museum of History (above) opened in 1948, and was the UK’s first national open-air museum. It is now the most popular heritage visitor attraction in Wales, with more than 500,000 people visiting in 2022-23, down from a pre-pandemic annual figure of nearly 700,000. Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales, which operates the site, completed a £30m redevelopment of the museum in 2018. The venue won the Art Fund Museum of the Year award in 2019.
Much of this activity is centred on Gweithdy (the Welsh word for workshop), which was created as part of the £30m redevelopment.
“It has been evolving and I think it’s really important that open-air museums do change and don’t become static,” Williams says. “For us that means looking at things like whose communities and histories we are representing.”
The museum is increasingly using its main building as a place where communities in Wales can share their history, whether that is an exploration of Somali heritage or an event to mark Diwali, the Hindu festival of light.
Fending off threats
As well as working hard to evolve their offer to visitors, open-air museums are also facing lots of operational challenges.
The vulnerability of these types of venues was highlighted recently when the future of Chiltern Open Air Museum in Buckinghamshire came under threat following a dispute with Comer Homes, a property developer that owns the land on which the museum is located.
Established as an independent charity in 1981, the museum cares for more than 30 rescued and reconstructed historic buildings, and tells the history of the Chilterns.
The situation with the developer was resolved after a campaign to save the venue, but it did highlight the pressures on open-air museums. And all of them, as large sites with lots of buildings and staff, are being hit by the cost-of-living crisis.
Judi Menabney, head of arts, archives and museums, at High Life Highland, which operates the Highland Folk Museum, says rising costs have made financial sustainability a key challenge.
“This is in a climate of, at best, stagnant public funding, and the inability, without significant new investment, to increase visitor numbers and income generation,” Menabney says.
“Setting aside the very real need for investment in adding to the museum offering, while refreshing and improving visitor services, all aspects of the running costs, including staff costs, have risen sharply in recent years and look set to continue rising.
"On top of the financial challenges, there is an increasing scarcity of practitioners of traditional skills, which will impact on new constructions, staff skills training, demonstrations, and presentations at events – some of the key ways in which Highland Folk Museum stays relevant and engages with its existing audience as well as new crowds.”
BEAMISH OPEN AIR MUSEUM
Beamish, The Living Museum of the North (above) was the vision of Frank Atkinson, its founder and first director. Atkinson had visited Scandinavian folk museums in the early 1950s and was inspired to create an open-air museum for north-east England. The £20m Remaking Beamish project is underway, the biggest in the site’s history, bringing a new era to the museum in the form of a 1950s town and farm. The venue attracted 774,000 visitors in 2022.
Nick Ralls is the chief executive at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, which operates Blists Hill Victorian Town as well as a range of other museums and heritage attractions on the World Heritage Site.
The trust has an ongoing redevelopment programme, with Blists Hill gaining a new thoroughfare, Canal Street, in 2009.
This added historic buildings as well as a mine railway experience and a visitor centre featuring an introductory exhibition linking life at Blists Hill with the themes of the gorge. The question, as ever with open-air museums, is what’s next?
“We are looking at what is the sustainable model for the future and how it is going to change,” Ralls says. “It’s that sustainability question, because an open-air museum is, in a way, like a conglomeration of many museums. And that is many, many museums that all require staffing.
“Fifty years after Blists Hill opened, it is still a question of relevance, which is probably something all us of in open-air museums are thinking about.”
Open-air museums will no doubt continue to evolve and find new and innovative ways to attract visitors. But as large-scale operations with high running costs, they will need all their inventiveness and resilience to ensure that they flourish for another 50 years.
Whose Past Is It Anyway?
Natasha Anson questions what nostalgia means to visitors
In October 2022 I embarked on a collaborative doctoral award co-supervised by Durham University and Beamish, The Living Museum of the North (pictured below), provisionally entitled Nostalgia and the Transformation of Working-Class Heritage.
The project asks what forms of nostalgia are felt at sites like Beamish, their relationship to contemporary anxieties, narratives and exclusions,
and how museums can use nostalgia progressively to tell a more representative story of the past.
In doing so, it will make practical recommendations on ways we can change our sites from being relatively homogenous, celebratory depictions of the past, to ones that tell stories that situate the past in global and colonial contexts.
After all, if we can imagine the past as the “good old days”, we can harness this imagination towards creating a more inclusive present and future.
How many of us are aware of how nostalgia is used at our museums? Nostalgia has been conceptualised by academics in many, often overlapping, forms, and was recently identified as one of nine key emotions driving people to act in support of museums.
Identifying which forms of nostalgia are prevalent at sites such as Beamish is a key early project goal.
Do people feel nostalgia for things purely within living memory, such as the Remaking Beamish 1950s area, or are they feeling a pull towards the warm hearths of the Edwardian Pit Village, despite this being well out of living memory?
Likewise, the importance of understanding nostalgia in relation to spending habits is crucial. Heritage sites, especially independent operations, rely on admissions income and secondary spending in gift shops and cafes. But what exactly are visitors spending money on, and is this inspired by a nostalgic feeling?
Gary Cross, a professor of modern history at Pennsylvania State University in the US, has written about “consumed nostalgia”, a longing for goods in which people find identity.
By examining the reasons visitors buy items, the project will provide insight into the emotional connections visitors make with retail ranges, and how this can play into product development.
The relationship of nostalgia to happiness is a key theme underscoring the project. After all, nostalgia is often thought of as neither happy nor unhappy, but bittersweet.
Museums perform a similar balancing act. They need to ensure visitors have a good day out, yet reflect historical realities. This requires a high amount of emotional labour from front-of-house staff, who manage visitors’ emotional responses to exhibits while maintaining a positive emotional demeanour.
The project explores these emotional responses and hopes to provide methods of managing the intensity of emotional labour required by staff and volunteers.
Natasha Anson is a PhD student and a community participation officer at Beamish Museum, County Durham