Beamish (Durham, UK)

Overview

Beamish  is an open air museum near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in Northern England.  The museum covers a range of eras from 18th century farming to the turn of the 20th century mining.  It sits on a vast rural property with different sections/eras connected by a vintage bus and tram loop.  Luckily for me, the days I visited (the first week of May), the lovely spring sunshine bathed the museum in warmth.  This obviously added to my enjoyment of the outside spaces.  Like all outdoor museums, Beamish is at the mercy of the weather in this regard!

The museum is a lively and fun place, which also offers a comprehensive historical immersion.  The staff are a great highlight of the museum.  I met so many who eagerly and voluntarily spoke about their area of the museum.  Their enthusiasm and knowledge really added to the experience.

Entry to Beamish

Bus for visitors

Tram for visitors

Similarities and Differences

In many ways, Beamish is very similar to my place of work – Sovereign Hill – but there are also some big differences.  The site of Beamish Museum is very large, with some spaces unused by museum visitors or administration – most of these spaces have livestock grazing.  This has provided Beamish with space to expand and grow.  When I visited, four major projects were underway: the development of a new orientation centre, the refurbishment of the tea rooms, the construction of a new replica church and the construction of a replica Fish Shop.  These works did have some impact on the visitor (it is hard not to notice the modern equipment and safety fencing and signage), but it seemed most people glanced and passed it by, too taken by the authentic areas to worry.  Certainly managing renovation and construction is a challenge all for historic recreation sites, but watching visitors’ reactions seemed to show that most are very forgiving of this, or simply not bothered.

Fish shop construction

Although Beamish has quite a long historical timeline to cover in one outdoor museum, the layout and map meant that visitors could quite easily navigate themselves through the different times.  Each era was contained to a separate section and there was a distinct separation between each, making it easier to fall in and out of each era.  For students in particular, I can image the distinct areas allow for a rich learning experience of change and continuity over time (a common topic throughout schooling).

View across Pit Village to Town

Signpost to different areas

Challenges and solutions

On my second day at Beamish I spoke to a number of staff members and observed an Education Program.  These conversations gave me an insight into some of the priorities, achievements and challenges they face, many of which were similar to our own.  As a simple example:

When running an education program with students in the museum is it better to have it open to the public to see or better to be closed off?

There is a valid argument to either side here.  Allowing general public to observe education programs with probably increase their enjoyment and possible their learning.  It creates a more lively museum environment and promotes learning and participation.

On the other hand, sometimes general visitors will not just observe but also participate, which can make teachers anxious about safety (including photography) and potentially interrupt the program while the Education Officer explains the activity or the boundaries to the visitors (this is particularly problematic with tight timelines).

From what I’ve seen, it seems best to decide the answer on a program by program basis.  Some programs the children are very young and safety is paramount for teachers/parents.  Other programs require props that need to remain in particular spots.  These may be best run in closed areas.  Alternatively, for programs where students perform in or explore outdoors spaces (particularly in small groups) encouraging visitors to observe can make for a richer experience for students and visitors alike.

Messy room in preparation for school program

Practising my writing on slate

Community Engagement

For self-funded museums, outreach programs are a luxury.  Relying on visitor numbers to sustain a museum doesn’t allow for much room for programs that are run offsite.  But every museum wants to engage the community, share and participate.

Beamish began an outreach program with Heritage Lottery Funding, but are currently sustaining the program themselves.   As part of the program they develop ‘bespoke’ programs based on either collection items, a new development within the museum, or community need/interest.  These programs are heavily tailored to communities, but always link back to the museum.  There were really positive stories around these programs with cross-generation and wide-reaching local community participation.  There are many other examples of programs on their website.

Reflecting on Beamish’s success with their outreach work, I thought about the challenges institutions face with securing funding.  One of the problems that seems to occur is the inability to secure recurrent funding.  Philanthropic organisations often like to fund exciting and new programs that they feel are filling a niche that hasn’t been filled before.  Fair enough.  But the problem is that this means many highly successful, strong and well-developed programs will loose funding after a few years because they are no longer new.  Institutions must sometimes feel the need to redesign perfectly good and efficient programs into something new, just to secure funding.  I wonder what other institutions have experienced this dilemma and how they overcome it?

Community involved in May Day celebrations

All in all I had a fantastic visit to Beamish.  It is a wonderful place with great staff and lots of happy visitors.

Ready for the mine tour

Mine Tour Entrance

Steam railway

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