Preserved for Posterity

02 July 2015

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage

As generally understood, open-air museums are refuges for buildings under threat on their existing sites. After being disassembled with great care, the buildings are conserved and painstakingly reassembled on their new site. Museums are regional in nature, reflecting local building styles and materials as well as the rural, urban or industrial nature of the area, and the Weald & Downland Open-Air Museum in Sussex, the Avoncroft Museum of Buildings in Worcestershire and the Chiltern Open-Air Museum in Buckinghamshire are good examples. At several sites, including the Black Country Museum nr. Dudley and the North of England Open-Air Museum at Beamish, County Durham, faithful copies of vernacular buildings mingle with conserved examples. They complete period scenes, and are used to display genuine house and shop interiors. Indeed, some sites are more complex still, for example the Blists Hill Victorian Town (nr. Telford, Shropshire), where industrial archaeology in the form of early blast furnaces is also present.    

The Bottle & Glass Inn comes from Brackmoor, the shops from Wolverhampton, in this street at the Black Country Museum near Dudley

Road widening and town centre redevelopment are amongst the reasons why buildings cannot always be conserved in situ. A fine 15th C Wealden house from Chiddingstone (Kent) was threatened by the building of a reservoir and was one of the earliest exhibits at the Weald & Downland, now a recognised centre for the preservation and conservation of timber-framed buildings. Its exhibits chart the development of such buildings in the south-east from the 14th C onwards, showing how mediaeval dwellings with living spaces open to the rafters, and central hearths without chimneys, developed into the modern layout. Buildings in flint, brick and timber can all be found here, including barns and cart sheds, cottages, and a smithy.


The range of structures on view at open-air museums is indeed impressive. At both the Avoncroft and Chiltern sites one can find a ’tin-tabernacle’ (a temporary church or chapel), a ‘prefab’ bungalow from the 1950’s, complete with period interior, and a toll-house. Great changes in farming in recent times have led to traditional farm structures, from shepherds’ huts to impressive cruck-framed barns, being well represented at many sites. A whole farmyard has been created from conserved buildings at the Chiltern museum, many of them from a single farm, whilst at Beamish the extensive site encompasses a Victorian farmhouse complete with period interior, as well as all the outbuildings.

"Pendean", an early 17th century timber-franed house at the Weals & Downland Museum in Singleton, Sussex

Urban and industrial buildings are prominent at the museums of the Midlands and North. At the Black Country Museum, brick terraces, a non-conformist chapel and various industrial buildings cluster round a wharf on the Dudley Canal, where traditional cargo-carrying narrow boats can often be seen in some number. From the functioning Victorian pub at Beamish, a whole street scene can be admired, and as the trams pass along the cobbles one is truly transported to an earlier age. Here, also, a mining village has been created using authentic buildings from County Durham – the board school, the chapel, the mining cottages and even the pit itself complete with spoil heaps. Nailshops and chainshops typify smaller industrial buildings from the Black Country north of Birmingham, and are preserved at the Avoncroft and Black Country sites. And at Blists Hill a range of facsimile Victorian shops is augmented by mining scenes and a small iron foundry – and the genuine pub has sawdust on the floor.


A number of other sites are essentially in situ restoration projects. Buildings and quaysides which bustled in the heyday of copper and tin mining have been brought back to life at Morwellham, on the Devon bank of the River Tamar, and at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm in Shropshire one experiences farm life at the beginning of the 20th century. Much further back in time, the Saxon village at West Stow in Suffolk consists of dwellings reconstructed in situ using best archaeological evidence, the whole process furthering the understanding of Saxon buildings and settlements.

The Saxon Villge at West Stow, Suffolk, is home to this reconstructed six-post house, with the hall beyond

The overall effect, then, of these and other museums is to preserve buildings, scenes and ways of life from the past, and of late a number have featured in historic recreation T.V. series. Many are on extensive sites where new developments continue to broaden their scope, and they are excellent locations for photography. Enthusiastic staff in period costumes staff traditional chemists, ironmongers and other shops, provide an authentic touch in a traditional brick terrace or miner’s cottage, or maybe exercise the shire horse in a farm scene from a past age. Or, returning to the purer origins of the open-air museum, one can simply study and admire historic structures saved from demolition, and appreciate the skills involved in preserving them for posterity.


This article was first published in "Heritage Photography", Spring 2011, the Archaeology and Heritage Group newsletter.


Photos and text by Dr Mike Sasse





Comments (1)

Emily Mathisen
02 July 2015

A fascinating article - thanks for sharing Mike. I went to a similar museum in Oslo and found it incredibly interesting. It is fantastic that these buildings have been saved for future generations. The ones I remember most are a farmers cottage where all the beds were built into shuttered alcoves in the walls and the wooden Stave church built in the C12th - well worth a visit if you are there. These places make for great photo opportunities as well of course!

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