Chiltern Open Air Museum (COAM) in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, would usually open every year daily between the end of March and October.
However the Covid-19 emergency means the museum hasn’t yet had the chance to open its doors to the public in 2020.
As an independent museum and charity, COAM receives no government or local authority funding and has now lost all its regular income from tickets, Annual Passes, events, weddings, school visits, filming and its shop and café. This represents around 80% of COAM’s total income.
Chiltern Open Air Museum, often described as a ‘hidden gem’, is a popular family attraction with stories, artefacts and multigenerational activities that appeal to many. It usually welcomes 20,000 school children a year who take part in award winning educational workshops. The museum has an outreach programme that supports local visits for vulnerable children and those with additional needs and has just started working with healthcare providers developing a social prescribing programme.
This loss of income is incredibly worrying. COAM has some reserves that will keep the basic essentials of the museum ticking over for a few months. However the reserves COAM has built up over several years mean it is not necessarily eligible to apply for many of the Covid-19 grants available to museum and heritage charities. While it is good news that COAM has these reserve funds to keep it secure for a while, the real danger from the loss of income due to the forced closure is that COAM may not have the opportunity to generate enough income over the 2020 season to survive through the winter 2020-21 closure. Even if the government relaxes the rules allowing COAM to open in the summer, it is likely there will be restrictions on activities and visitor numbers for a further period which will inevitably limit the museum’s ability to recover the lost income.
The management team have reduced outgoings as much as possible and the majority of staff are now on the Government backed Furlough Scheme. Nevertheless a number of essential staff are needed to keep the museum going, to ensure the 45 acre site is secure, maintain the building collection, and feed, water and care for the livestock of goats, cows, chickens and a flock of sheep now increased by around 15 lambs in the last month.
The open-air museum, founded in 1976, has rescued and reconstructed 37 historic buildings that were the homes or workplaces of ordinary people. These buildings are of social and historic importance and had been gradually disappearing from the landscape. The collection of buildings currently covers a period of time from the Iron Age to a 1940s post war prefab – without the Museum’s preservation of these buildings the heritage would have been lost.
COAM does not only reconstruct historic buildings but interprets them to show the public what they would have been like at a particular time in their history. The landscape of the site includes period gardens, arable fields, woodland and a ‘Dig for Victory’ allotment. The Museum’s farm and livestock are managed using as many traditional methods as possible.
The wide range of buildings has made the site a popular location for filming and the site has been used for filming Mary Queen of Scots, Downton Abbey, Horrible Histories, Call the Midwife, Grantchester, Midsomer Murders and many more. A number of TV productions were booked to be filmed during the spring and summer months which have now been either cancelled or put on hold which is yet more revenue loss for the museum.
Traditionally COAM has relied on the support of a fantastic team of volunteers, many of whom are retired and/or in shielded groups so are no longer able to help during the Covid-19 emergency. This also means that once the lockdown is relaxed and the museum has the go ahead to open again, it may well struggle to find the numbers of people and volunteers needed to reopen and to keep the site going.
COAM will start a volunteer recruitment drive when it is open to ensure there are many hands to help look after its collection and site. Volunteering for a charity like this can be a vital lifeline for many people who may be out of work, retired, socially isolated or struggling in some other way. It can provide a place in the community for wellbeing, a place to learn or to develop and retain vital skills that will help to recover confidence and sense of wellbeing and resilience. Volunteering can assist in a return to employment and help some to discover a new career path.
COAM’s beautiful site is a popular place for wellbeing, learning and calm and this museum, like many, is therefore appealing to the community, heritage enthusiasts and supporters for their help. COAM is asking people to pledge their support by buying an open ticket to visit the museum when it re-opens, to buy an Annual or Lifetime Pass, make a donation or sign up to be a volunteer.
Visit www.coam.org.uk to find out more and pledge your support.
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