Why Weald & Downland Living Museum is confident it can survive lockdown

A strong 2019 is one of the reasons The Weald & Downland Living Museum is confident it will be able to emerge safely from the coronavirus lockdown.

Tuesday, 5th May 2020, 1:50 pm
Simon Wardell

As Simon Wardell, museum director, says: “The irony is that this year should have been a year of celebration for our 50th anniversary. But now it is going to be our 50th year of resilience instead.”

The point is that the museum was fortunate enough to enter the shutdown in a position of strength.

“We have had a fantastic collective effort and a very strong and responsive group of trustees and we have got fantastic endowment trusts. I am very confident we will be able to open again when the time comes. We were in the very fortunate place where we had quite a positive 2019 and finished the year with a surplus. We saw a good rise in visitor numbers.”

They hit 130,000, up significantly on 2015 which saw around 90,000. The new visitor centre has certainly encouraged more people; so too has the popularity of the TV series The Repair Shop: “That really does endear a lot of people to visiting just to get a glimpse. And it has done us no harm at all in moving to the prime-time schedule.”

Renovations and refurbishments had also added to the museum’s appeal: “So just a few weeks ago, it was all looking very positive for this year, our 50th anniversary.”

The timing is certainly cruel: “I certainly feel for all my colleagues in the heritage sector. There are some I know that are going to struggle. This is a period for us where we would generate 60-70 per cent of our visitors over this next six months. A few weeks ago we were looking forward to having a substantial weekend of events around Easter, with children enjoying all the various activities.”

Instead, the museum is now looking to increase its online offer, with the launch of a historical fiction short story writing competition. They will also be looking to construct some blogs.

“And we are also looking at some ways of getting some kind of visual experience of the museum across to people on the website. What they are missing is the opportunity to take exercise and to explore the site. Maybe we can use some historic footage of the museum or create some new footage.”

In the meantime, a very small team remains on site to look after the rare breeds and also to keep an eye on the buildings collection. The hit remains huge, though: “If you pull together everything across the year, we are looking at nearly 90 per cent of our income generated by the visitors in all shapes and forms, whether that is film crews or student visits or somebody having a day trip, and that loss is obviously significant to us. We are an independent museum.

“But certainly my predecessors put some endowment trusts together, and the trust is there for times like this to step in and to use as a financial top-up.”

75 per cent of the museum team has been furloughed, receiving 80 per cent of pay through the government scheme and topped up to full pay by the museum itself.

And that’s the resilience Simon was talking about: “We are showing that spirit with the board and we are confident that we have got a medium to short-term plan… but we are all in the hands of the virus and the government advice that goes with it. The optimist in me thinks we are looking towards September.”

Simon is delighted with the way the team has rallied so far: “It has been fantastic the way the team has responded to the challenge of closing. We moved pretty quickly with the board of trustees to shore up our finances.” In the event, everyone pulled together in a great team effort: “The team were wonderful in the way they reacted, and we have got a very strong and responsive group of trustees. But it is hard for the staff. For so many people that work in this sector, museum work is a vocation.”

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