History Without a History Centre: What We’ve Been Up to While You Were Away (Part 1)
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.
- Visit the Historic England website and see whether your building is listed and you can also search their online archive.
- 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)
David Plant, Archivist
Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer.