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‘Living’ the museum experience: The development of open-air museums in Britain

Tram at Beamish Museum

By Emily Redican-Bradford

How will museums look in the future? That’s the question that the #FutureMuseum Project seeks to answer. Through an online collaboration platform, international experts in the heritage sector have been sharing their views about how the industry will change in coming years.[1] One of the most prominent ideas is that the success of future organisations will be determined by their ability to engage with visitors, with ‘experience-driven’ enterprises expected to thrive.[2] How can these predictions influence the way museums interact with their visitors today? With over 2,500 museums, the UK has plenty of options for museum-lovers, including national, local, university and science museums, all of which have their own focus.[3] Arguably the most interactive experience is offered by open-air or ‘living’ museums. These organisations have shifted away from traditional ‘indoor’ museum spaces to ‘outdoor’ sites, offering visitors the chance to immerse themselves in the day-to-day activities of the past by wandering through reconstructed towns and villages.

The first open-air museum established in the British Isles was the Cregneash Folk Museum on the Isle of Man, founded in 1938.[4] However, it was not until the rise of social history in the 1950s and 60s that open-air museums began to take off, with favourites such as the Ulster Folk Museum in Northern Ireland and the Weald and Downland Living Museum in West Sussex, established in 1961 and 1969 respectively.[5] Since then, the value of open-air museums in protecting and exhibiting exceptional historical collections has been recognised by awards, such as the Designation Scheme by Arts Council England, which in 2012 was presented to the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley.[6] Instead of using information boards and displaying artefacts behind glass, living museums allow visitors to fully interact with exhibits, encouraging them to learn about history through discussions with museum staff and volunteers, all dressed up as ‘characters’ from the past.

One of the most well-known open-air museums in Britain is Beamish, the Living Museum of the North. Opened by Frank Atkinson in 1970, Beamish showcases life in the North-East of England in the 1820s, early 1900s and 1940s, and celebrates the region’s rich industrial history.[7] Located near Stanley, County Durham, the museum includes an 1820s Old Hall and Waggonway, a Pit Village and Town set in the early 1900s, and a 1940s Farm that depicts local life during the Second World War. Visitors can hop on and off vintage buses and trams to explore the extensive site, stopping to sample traditional food and drink along the way and to try out various activities and occupations, such as baking or heading down the mine.

One of the reasons for Beamish’s success lies in its collections, which are constantly evolving to ensure the museum always includes a time period within living memory. Currently, the museum is constructing a 1950s Town, which will include a cinema, ice-cream café, shops and a bowling green. This expansion is part of the ‘Remaking Beamish’ project, an enterprise funded by a £10.9 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, which also includes the development of a Georgian coaching inn, at which visitors will be able to stay overnight.[8] The resources available to living museums facilitate interaction with the local community, with Beamish regularly hosting outreach events for charities such as the Alzheimer’s Society, in order to promote health and well-being across the region.[9] Through replicating or salvaging disused and derelict buildings from across the North-East and relocating them to Beamish, as well as offering unlimited entrance tickets that allow visitors to return to the museum for a year free of charge, the organisation continues its commitment to the local community and enjoys widespread popularity throughout the region.

Living museums are, of course, not universally celebrated. From queries about the authenticity of exhibits and questions about why certain periods are overlooked in favour of others, to concerns about the value of ‘dismantling’ and relocating historical buildings, living museums have their fair share of critics.[10] However, with the immersive experience predicted to be a staple of the museum sector in the future, it seems that living museums are here to stay. For now, the growing number of visitors to organisations such as Beamish imply a thriving industry committed to promoting public engagement with the past. A state of affairs that, surely, is no bad thing.


[1] Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell (et. al), ‘Future Museum Project’, Museum-iD Magazine, 22 (2018), p. 17

[2] Ibid., p. 22

[3] Museums Association. FAQs. Available at:

[4] Zuraini Md Ali and Rodiah Zawawi, ‘Contributions of open-air museums in preserving historical buildings: Study of open-air museums in South East England’ in Journal of Design and the Built Environment (2010), p. 3

[5] Linda Young, ‘Villages that never were: the museum village as a heritage genre’ International Journal of Heritage Studies (2006) 12, p. 322 and Ali and Zawawi, ‘Contributions of open-air museums’, p. 3

[6] Black Country Living Museum. The Museum’s Story. Available at:

[7] Beamish Museum. History of Beamish Available at:

[8] Beamish Museum. Remaking Beamish. Available at:

[9] For more information on the museum’s community work, visit:

[10] Ali and Zawawi, ‘Contributions of open-air museums’, p. 7 and John Walton, ‘Recovering the Popular Past: the Beamish Open-Air Museum in its British Context’, Conference lecture delivered at Boston University, History of Art and Architecture Faculty, p. 23. Available at:

Image: Tram at Beamish Museum, copyright Malc McDonald and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence (

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