On 20th March the History Centre temporarily closed its doors to staff and public in line with national guidance for dealing with Covid-19. Unsure when we would return staff from all teams faced the challenge of working from home without face-to-face contact with our colleagues and community of visitors, as well as the loss of physical access to our extensive collections and resources.
Despite these restrictions, our industrious and enterprising teams have been working away on a range of projects and initiatives, from the comfort (or discomfort) of our own homes. In addition, several colleagues have combined their History Centre commitments with voluntary community support work, helping the more vulnerable members of society. As Wiltshire Council employees we have also been supporting the local authority’s response to the pandemic.
Here is an update from the first of our teams, detailing some of the ventures we have undertaken to adapt and maintain our services during lockdown.
Wiltshire Buildings Record
The WBR normally opens its doors to the public on a Tuesday. Because of the restrictions we have not been able to see any visitors since the end of March, but that has not stopped enquirers emailing. It seems that while people have time on their hands, not being able to work, researching the history of their house seemed like a great pastime. Without physical access to our own records and the archive collections, we have had to manage researchers’ expectations and point them to online resources.
Of course, there are several different ways of doing research online, and I have managed to direct some enquirers to useful websites that can answer their questions without the need for a visit. A great jumping off point is the map comparison website Know your Place. We are extremely fortunate that for Wiltshire, Somerset, Gloucestershire and Bristol you can tell immediately whether a building existed at a certain period right back to c1840.
Other ways of researching are:
Check the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives online catalogue to see if there are any immediately relevant documents. The documents are not available online but once the History Centre is open again to the public you will be able to look at sources such as deeds, maps, censuses, Enclosure awards etc.
Victoria County History gives an excellent overview of Wiltshire parish histories that have been covered so far and is available online.
With the easing of lockdown, we were able to resume searching our own WBR records and our specialist research service has restarted in a limited way. WBR is now beginning to undertake commissioned histories for interest again, so please do call or email for a chat. You can find all our contact details on the WBR pages of this website.
The Archaeology team has had an eventful lockdown period which has seen two members of staff leave and two new colleagues arrive, while we also sadly lost one of our World Heritage Site team, Sarah Simmons, who left her post after 14 years to pursue new goals.
The challenges of working in lockdown were mostly faced by our two new recruits; Neil Adam and Michal Cepak who are now the Assistant County Archaeologists under Melanie Pomeroy-Killinger. Both Neil and Michal have had to go through staff inductions and learn the job while working from home, but happily this task has been greatly aided by superb help from Melanie as well as from the HER (Historic Environment Record) team of Tom Sunley and Jacqui Ramsay.
In terms of the day to day, little has changed for archaeology. The business of local government continued with planning applications to be assessed and major public works, such as the A303 Stonehenge by-pass, to be planned for with other colleagues in the Council as well as colleagues in Historic England and a myriad of other government departments and interested parties.
Lockdown has meant the cancellation of our heritage walks this summer, along with a number of other public events that we had planned, but we do plan to reach out to you through a digital strategy that should see far more content going online for the public at large to access.
Living and working in lockdown has brought a unique set of challenges, but as things slowly ease, we will return to what is nowadays called a ‘new normal’, probably never exactly as it was prior to 26th March 2020, but with the same sense of public service along with a few new ways of working and presenting our data to you.
In Part 2, we will hear how the Archives and Local Studies team, Conservation and Museums Advisory Service (CMAS) and Education Service have kept busy during lockdown.
Neil Adam, Assistant County Archaeologist
Dorothy Treasure, Buildings Recorder, WBR
Heather Perry, Conservation and Museum Manager (CMAS)
Just before Christmas I was invited to an afternoon at Chippenham Museum to celebrate the contribution volunteers have made to the Museum over the past year.
I listened with great interest and a growing sense of wonder as Curator Melissa Barnett thanked all those who had given their time for free, speaking about all the work that had gone on throughout the year and the projects and events volunteers had been involved in.
Working with a small team of paid staff, the efforts of the volunteers are vital in creating an active and bustling community based Museum. They have a group of around 75 people who give their time to help in all areas, both front of house and behind the scenes. Amongst other things volunteers welcome visitors on the reception desk, carry out educational activities and workshops, answer enquiries, research and document the collections and work on special events. They also provide an important link with the local community, ensuring that the Museum provides what people in the town want.
As I reflected on the afternoon, it struck me that Chippenham isn’t the only museum in Wiltshire with a vibrant and hard-working group of volunteers. Having recently started working as Museum Officer for Wiltshire Council, I’ve been busy visiting many of the museums across the county and meeting the people who run them. Time and time again I’ve been mightily impressed by the levels of dedication, enthusiasm and expertise shown by the volunteers I’ve come across, including those here at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
For the past year I have been based at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre for my National Archives 'Transforming Archives' traineeship where I have been developing a community archive for the village of Lacock. It has been a fantastic opportunity to gain new skills and develop existing ones. These have included using Joomla (website software), training and managing volunteers, arranging events, advertising, interviewing residents, project management skills, amid many others. For me, the most exciting part of my traineeship was meeting the local residents of Lacock and others in the surrounding areas. The enthusiasm they held for their village, history and community was startling and was something that I have never experienced in the places that I have lived. The friendliness and willingness to welcome myself and my volunteers into their homes to share their memories, stories and photographs of Lacock was wonderful. It has been a privilege to be able to learn more about this small and close community, over the last year, which is sadly under threat from the continuing rise of tourism and the demands that this entails.
The Lacock Community Archive has collected fifty-two oral history interviews from those within Lacock and the surrounding areas concerning evacuees, American soldiers, Lacock School, fetes and fairs or Manor Farm (located in the village) which no longer exists. Memories have ranged from dressing up as a swine herdsman son at the Lacock Pageant of 1932 to delivering papers to the Abbey. The interviewees have ranged from teenagers in the village to those who have lived there for their entire lives and whose family goes back generations within the village. In addition to this, over five hundred copies of various photographs and documents have been collected from the community and uploaded to the Lacock website for everybody to view. These include photographs of sport teams, weddings, the old Working Men's Club and events such as the millennium procession. Hopefully, both the oral history interviews and collection of photographs will prove to be a useful historical resource and will continue being a means to share information about the village.
A fundamental part of the Lacock Community Archive project has been recording the memories of local residents through oral history interviews. Oral history is a fantastic method of discovering stories that have remained hidden or missed from traditional historical methods. These memories have ranged from hiding American soldiers from the Military Police in the basement of the Red Lion to Mrs Murray (local schoolteacher) who opened her front window curtains so the local children could watch their favourite television programmes. These vibrant and wonderful memories encapsulate a village community that is often overlooked by the vast number of tourists that flock to the Abbey.