Authenticity and detail are essential when it comes to world building. After all, it’s tends not to be the big things that leave a lasting impact but a huge quantity of small elements that make a space feel ‘real’.
This is the case with Blists Hill Victorian town, one of the many locations of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group. When it comes to a detailed knowledge of a period of history being part of a ten strong local group of museums is certainly going to give you an edge. The ‘town’ is a living museum of which there are only a few other examples in the UK.
The area is famed for it’s connection to the industrial revolution and at it’s heart is the museum is home to a ruined blast furnace that once would have produced cast iron items for the surrounding area. This is one of the few ruins on site and certainly not the main attraction for most.
The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Blists Hill offer a very immersive experience that enables you to clearly imagine a life lived over 100 years ago. First you are struck by the buildings, a high street recreated from a mixture of saved, relocated, original building and exact copies. These include the everyday commercial businesses of the time; a bank, pharmacy, lock smiths, butcher, pub, fish and chip shop, post office, cobblers, bakery and many more.
Off the main drag you’ll find larger buildings spread throughout the rest of the site. A functioning ironworks, school, church, squatter’s cottage, doctor’s house and traditional refreshments pavilion to name a few. The site stretches on for miles but this is not a ghost town. Coal fires burn in the hearth, pigs snort in their sties and the chug of a steam engine raise another cart from the mine shaft.
Meet the residents
Walking the through the streets and behind many of the doorways of Blists Hill you will find resident demonstrators in full Victorian dress. It’s these talented players that really bring the museum to life. More than 20 – 30 demonstrators are onsite at a time. Often you will find them carrying out crafts of the day or going about their daily chores.
Meeting the printer was especially fascinating for me. He guides you through the process of ‘coining a phrase’ with individual metal characters, applying ink and transferring an impression onto the paper. The oil based ink dries slowly on the pieces of paper hung on washing lines in the workshop which smells of a mixture of grease sawdust and and the coal smoke that inhabits the whole site.
“All staff are trained before working in the exhibits alone.” explained Paul Gossage, Director of Marketing & PR for the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. “This includes working along experienced colleagues and learning key facts provided on the exhibit”. All facts imparted are researched and verified by the curation team.
Visitors are free to talk to the demonstrators who normally talk in the third person, referring to the Victorians as “they” or “them” (rather than in the first person “I” or “we” which some similar museums employ) allowing them to compare technologies, practices and culture with that of today. “This is a key tool for all of our education work and would not be possible if using first person” continued Paul.
Alongside the demonstrators there are also a smaller number of supporting actors. “We have actors on site that only use first person. This allows visitor a truly immersive experience, as they never come out of character.”
A traditional Victorian wedding
The location is the perfect set for stories to be told. Unsurprisingly I’m not the first to think of this. “We have done this (immersive story telling) in the past during special events such as wedding re-enactments” “Visitors can watch the wedding day unfold, with guests arriving, preparations being made, last minute items being purchased from the dress shop, groom’s celebrations in the pub, the service and reception.”
It’s obvious that there is a myriad of possibilities for further stories that could be told on the site and it’s no surprise that the site has been used as a backdrop for many TV and film productions.
Having first opened in 1973, it’s clear that people’s interest in immersing themselves in periods of history for both education and entertainment is certainly not new. With each year the site has slowly expanded the overall experience and making Blists Hill magical to visit, you can’t get much closer to time travel than this.