The Weald & Downland Open Air Museum (WDOAM), which opened to the public in 1970, is one of the leading museums of historic buildings and rural life in the UK. It has a collection of 50 historic buildings – domestic, agricultural and industrial – dating from the 13th to the early 20th centuries, and an extensive collection of smaller artefacts. Many of the houses are furnished to replicate historic domestic interiors. In 1998 its collections were awarded ‘Designated Status’ in recognition of their importance. The WDOAM is one of the major independent museums in this country: it receives some 150,000 visitors a year, and is thus among the leading leisure attractions in Southern England.
The replica clothing forms a key part of the Museum’s interpretation strategy. We began to develop in-house expertise in live interpretation in the early 2000s following the opening of our Tudor kitchen where visitors can learn about the variety of tasks undertaken by a ‘Tudor’ housewife, including food preparation (and taste some of the results). All our live interpretation is third person: in other words, the interpreter retains his or her twenty-first century persona rather than going into role. The word ‘interpretation’ was deliberately chosen for what we do at the museum. 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. This applies to the clothing project as much as all other aspects of the Museum. We are always open to new evidence and developments and accept that some aspects of the past remain a matter of opinion.
Visitors can now see and talk to demonstrators wearing replica clothing in a number of our buildings ranging in date from c.1300 to c.1890. There is no compulsion for staff and volunteers to wear the clothing – a good impression is only given by someone comfortable wearing an outfit – so we cannot say which outfits will be worn on site on any given day. However, when not being worn we try (in so far as practical) to have the clothing on display for visitors to see. Aspects of the clothing production have also become part of our demonstration programme – spinning in Bayleaf, flax preparation and natural dyeing. Volunteers are being trained in the use of the horizontal loom with the ultimate aim of producing our own cloth. We are always happy to arrange group talks on the project when pre-booked. Our involvement in off-site events is subject to the constraints of the Museum programme.