Blists Hill Open Air Museum, Shropshire

Growing the status and visitor numbers of a World Heritage Site museum

Of the nine museums explaining and interpreting the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site, the Blists Hill Open Air Museum is the largest. Over its 50 acres, it takes the form of a partly original, partly re-created late Victorian industrial village with houses, factories and workshops. Here, costumed actors and volunteers act out the daily lives of its occupants and small businesses continue the trades of the gorge’s industrial heyday selling their wares to visitors.

There are the significant remains of historic iron furnaces and coal and iron ore mines, a canal and listed factories. Many former industrial buildings once threatened with demolition have been relocated here. They sit alongside others built anew from careful study of extant examples of industrial buildings of West Midlands.

After 40 years of life as a museum, Blists Hill needed a substantial reinvestment to stimulate growth in visitor numbers. With the demise of the Longbridge motorworks, regional funding sources became available for projects able to boost the identity and status of the West Midlands. We showed the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust how the critical mass of the visitor experience could be enhanced by carefully-sited further development, with new site movement infrastructure improving its accessibility to the disabled. The proposed reinvestment sought to raise the status of Blists Hill to be the main WHS visitor orientation centre, directing visitors to all the assets of the Gorge and the region. It proposed creating two well serviced open-air event spaces able to hold several thousand visitors and “off ticket” events bringing in commercial revenue alongside those managed by the museum’s staff. To support these works, we demonstrated how substantial additional car parking could be accommodated within some of the protected woodland.

ERDF and Regional Development Agency grant funding of £13 million was awarded but came under severe programme constraints. We had to submit detailed planning applications within two months of appointment. Many technical challenges of contamination, unstable ground, buried wartime ordnance, ecology and unknown underground services had to be overcome. This needed a very hands-on approach to design management, with weekly project team meetings and significant attention to optimising team communications and engaging with consultees and planning authority.

The completed scheme includes a new street of carefully researched Victorian era business frontages and manufacturing workshops, a café, an inclined lift, a woodland railway and working clay mine.

The finished project has seen considerable growth in visitor numbers to this popular West Midlands institution and won many regional and national awards.