Thriving in the past: Black Country Living Museum brings history to life for the masses

The wait is over. After months of uncertainty, heartache and lost good times, one of the region’s most cherished attractions is back – and it feels good ar kid!

The Black Country Living Museum
The Black Country Living Museum

The Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) in Dudley, has represented a large part of the heart of the West Midlands for decades.

Never having experienced a prolonged unplanned closure since it opened in 1978, it has delighted generations of school children and families with its carefully reconstructed shops, houses and industrial areas depicting the region as it would have been in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Populated with historical characters brought to life by gifted actors, the buildings at the 26-acre site are used to bring to life the story of the Black Country’s proud heritage in a manner that all visitors can live, breathe and share in.

The Black Country Living Museum

Many attractions – particularly those rooted in regional history – seek to educate as well as entertain, and many succeed. Not only does the BCLM have a strong reputation for doing this, but it is also known for its hearty supply of added magic, and not to mention probably the best fish and chips in the world.

But this year of course, disaster struck. The Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting lockdown led to the BCLM – along with other attractions across the UK – entering into a forced closure to the public that lasted for months.

Such closures were made for public safety – understood and embraced by the majority of attractions they affected – but the resulting loss of business has taken a financial toll on many, with recovery set as being very much an uphill battle.

The Black Country Living Museum

During lockdown, the Black Country Living Museum lost £3.1 million in revenue and an anticipated 150,000 visitors.

With 94 per cent of its income generated from visitor revenue, the impact of lockdown on the museum’s finances was devastating to say the least.

While the BCLM was fortunate to receive £1.175 million of financial support from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund, said support was unable to offset the fall in income. Reopening was crucial to the museum’s survival.

The Black Country Living Museum

As the Government began to ease lockdown restrictions, many attractions were once again able to open from last month, though many – including the BCLM – took additional time to ensure that necessary safety measures and procedures were in place for the protection of both visitors and staff.

Following diligent reorganisation and introduction of new processes, sites across the UK have gradually come back to life over the last few weeks, with the BCLM itself proudly having reopened its doors on August 1.

Is the beloved site the same as people will remember? Not exactly. But thanks to the hard work of its staff and the enthusiasm of its returning visitors, its wonderful spirit has remained, and the museum is a testament to how such attractions can operate safely in a post-lockdown world and continue to provide the fantastic visitor experience they are known for.

The Black Country Living Museum

New safety procedures put in place at the Black Country Living Museum have been numerous, including the introduction of a staggered entry system, one-way routes around the site, and sanitiser stations set up at various selected locations.

In perhaps their biggest move, the team at the museum have introduced a reduced daily visitor capacity.

Chief operating officer Natasha Eden said: “Normally in August we would hope to welcome around 50,000 visitors on to the site, and at the moment we’ve brought the maximum capacity down to about 1,000 visitors-a-day. So we’ll hit probably half of our normal numbers if we sell out everyday.

The Black Country Living Museum

“But that for us means that we think it will feel comfortable on site for everyone that’s here, so they can feel confident in it. And we can also feel confident that we’re not going to create areas of overcrowding.

“It’s quite nice because people get to see the site in a different way. For a school holiday, compared with when normally the numbers are a lot higher, we’ve actually heard back from people that ‘it was nice to find a quiet garden’, or ‘the queues for the sweet shop were less than I’m used to’, so there are some benefits.”

Director of programmes Carol King added: “One of the other benefits is that we’ve kind of curated the visit a bit more than we usually would.

The Black Country Living Museum

“Usually people can come in and explore as they want, but we’ve now got more suggested routes. So people are slowing down, they’re seeing more, they’re seeing parts of the site they’re not familiar with, and finding out about different stories as well which has been really, really good.

“The key thing is, we want people to be safe but also have a good day out.”

Duty manager Kevin Cooksey said: “We had a lot to do as far as training staff with new procedures and getting everything ready for a safe reopening. But its been really positive so far – the public have been great.”

The Black Country Living Museum

Though the BCLM was closed to the public during lockdown, important maintenance work was still carried out at the site, and gradually more of its staff returned, itching to reopen the doors and return the treasured attraction to the visitors it is built to enchant.

“During the actual lockdown period we went right down to only our duty managers and our animal handlers being on site, and they were really here to keep the site maintained and to look after the animals,” said Natasha. “So when we all started to come back to the site in around May time it was amazing to see – it was like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Obviously everything had grown and there was quite a different look on site to normal.

“So there has been that element which was just us trying to get back up and running and welcome people back to a site they recognised, but also trying to take on board all the tasks needed to make it Covid-secure. We’ve been rebuilding staffing with the benefit of furlough since May into June, and then really ramping up in July to get everything ready.

The Black Country Living Museum

“That has involved everything from our health and safety team making sure that we’ve been following everything that we have needed to from a risk assumptions point of view, right the way through to the programming team thinking about stories we can relate to what we’ve all gone through with the pandemic that link back to the Black Country as well.”

Indeed, maintaining their ethos of educating their visitors and making the museum relatable to those who attend, the BCLM team have now tied numerous elements of the site into historic times of adversity that mirror the modern experience of Covid-19.

“In the school house for example, people are able to learn about the cholera epidemic,” said Natasha. “We want the site to be able to reflect what everyone has been through.”

The Black Country Living Museum

Now that the site is up and running again, staff at the BCLM are beginning to turn their thoughts towards plans for the months to come.

“I think that now we’ve got up and running we’re really going to look at how it’s working, how visitors are interacting with it and take the best bits of that and roll it out through into the autumn,” said Carol. “We’re still looking at what’s happening elsewhere in terms of our events programme, because the key thing is about keeping our visitors safe.

“But we are looking ahead to what we might be able to do for our events programme at Christmas as we know our events at this time are really popular and so we want to be able to put these on. But it’s just about seeing what the environment is like at the time and what the regulations are.”

The Black Country Living Museum

Though treasured as a visitor attraction, the Black Country Living Museum is also known as a popular shooting location for film and TV projects.

Due to the nature of the site as a living museum and functional historic village, it has been a popular choice for makers of period television, and has famously been used as a filming location for every single series of BBC hit drama Peaky Blinders.

Now that the BCLM is open once more, enquiries from film-makers have been coming in.

“We’re getting a lot of enquiries from people that want to be able to do multiple scenes and episodes in one place,” said Natasha.

The Black Country Living Museum

“I think once they feel secure and safe somewhere, they are then saying ‘that saves us having to find eight or nine locations’. So I think actually we are seeing quite different requests to what we might have had before.

“That legacy of having done filming here means that from almost the moment lockdown came to an end we were getting enquiries. So that hard work in the past has put us in good stead and people know to get in touch.

“The important thing for us though is getting the balance right and being able to have visitors here, as opposed to the site being shut for filming. A lot of the requests are ‘could you shut entirely so we can come, and we’d like two weeks’, and that’s not our primary purpose. So it’s balancing the filming opportunities that are out there with trying to make sure that we can still let the public in.”

And as far as letting the public in, the team at the Black Country Museum are thrilled to be back doing what they do best.

The Black Country Living Museum

“It’s such a strange atmosphere being here when there’s no-one here,” said Carol. “Just to see people coming back and enjoying what the site is all about has been wonderful.

“The staff are excited to be back and I think that’s really coming across with the visitors. There was such a buzz on the opening day. This is what we’re here to do, and it’s nice to back doing it.”

“In general the whole thing has worked better than we could have hoped so far,” added Kevin. “The public have been first class, and we’re really hoping for continuous support. As many people who can come and see us, the better.”

The Black Country Living Museum is currently open seven days-a-week at a reduced capacity. Due to the ongoing situation with Covid-19, admission to the museum is currently only available via a pre-booked entry time.

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