West Sussex Gazette
Weald & Downland Museum’s Jez Smith on working as a site interpreter
I used to work in the charity sector as a database programmer and enjoyed listening to historic music to help me concentrate. It was during this time I was inspired to learn to actually play this type of music for myself. This led to me volunteering at the Weald & Downland Living Museum on weekends in 2008.
I immediately knew that working in this sector and playing this music was what I wanted to do. I decided to make a seismic career change, left databases behind and began a masters in museum studies at Leicester University. While studying, I volunteered at a number of museums including the Weald & Downland twice a week. Now seven years on in this role, I’m enjoying a career working here as a site interpreter in an industry and sector I love!
My day-to-day role is varied and exciting. Being a site interpreter, my main focus is to deliver a piece of social history to visitors, whether I am brewing inside a 16thcentury kitchen, harvesting flax and processing it for linen or playing historical instruments around the site. I frequently work inside the buildings themselves as well as maintaining connections with both the public and the volunteers, running volunteer training and other roles like co-ordinating the historic clothing group which started in 2007. Funded by friends of the museum, this group maintains and creates the wide range of clothing relevant to the key buildings at the museum. The clothing worn around the site is all traditionally made and hand sewn, right down to the dyeing methods used. The talented volunteers who create the clothing have been specially trained by professionals in the sector.
The aim of playing historic music at the museum is not so much as a musical performance but to add to the general ambience of the site and to complement the visitors’ experience of the buildings in our collection.
I was formally taught contemporary guitar by a session musician, and then taught myself to play the hurdy-gurdy, medieval bagpipes and various string instruments. Unlike now where there are some hurdygurdy teachers around the world sharing their talents on Zoom and teaching other enthusiasts virtually, I learned to play by reading a tutorial book by Doreen Musket. It was a considerable challenge to learn this instrument without a visual aid or teacher.
Everything I play, from the hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes to string instruments like the gittern, cittern and lute, is relevant to the buildings you see at the museum. I love being a part of creating the experience that the museum gives to its visitors, as the music plays a part in immersing people into their experience of the site, along with the sounds of the blacksmith and the working mill. It all contributes to the general soundscape of the museum.
Bagpipes were widely played in England until the 17th century. We also have historical evidence of a lute being refurbished for a yeoman farmer on his deathbed in 1588, which demonstrates that such instruments were not just for the gentry and were not unknown to the rural farming community. Intangible cultural heritage like music, song and dance is very important to both myself and the museum. It represents another aspect of the museum to the visitors and is relevant in all areas of our work.
The educational and academic background of the museum has always been significant, and the interpretation people experience on site is a reflection of this ethos. We are passionate about understanding traditional trades, crafts and buildings, and that is what makes my job so special. I feel fortunate to be able to answer questions from the public, leaving them with an understanding of the past, and providing an extra insight or revelation, enabling them to make connections from the past with the modern world.
I am always learning too, and I love that about my job. From growing, reaping and drying flax (we have a blog post on this process) and providing demonstrations inside the buildings, to looking after historic clothing, the hop plants and playing music. No two days are the same and that is what makes the Weald & Downland Living Museum such a special place to work and visit.
Each year the museum runs a range of Historic Life Weekends, where people can experience an aspect of the museum they wouldn’t normally be able to see on a daily basis and the different seasonal celebrations ie, Wassail and end of harvest. The opportunity for visitors to experience personal interaction with the museum interpreters and volunteers across the year allows them to learn about topics covering a wide range of interests.