Having created a living unicorn last year, Chiltern Open Air Museum, in Buckinghamshire, has even more magic in store this year. Sian Hammerton-Fraser reveals more
Last year the beautiful setting of the Chiltern Open Air Museum near Chalfont St Giles was the scene for a magical Museums at Night evening. But it left organisers of this year's after hours event with something of a problem. How do they better it?
© Colin Hattersley Photography, colinhattersley.com
The answer, it seems, is quite simple.
“The unicorn last year was absolutely magical but we’re doing something different this year," says Visitor Experience Manager Sian Hammerton-Fraser. "We’ve got a Pegasus".
As far as anybody is aware, it will be the first sighting of the mythological flying beast in an open air museum. In mythology, of course, Pegasus took off and flew too close to the sun, but Sian assures us that this one "will stay close to the ground - air traffic control restrictions - we’re too close to Heathrow for her to take off".
The wings of the magical beast are being made by the same people who made the unicorn last year. The company also made a wonderful wicked headless horseman for last year's Halloween.
"We contacted them and said that we had this idea, and they were bonkers enough to say yes. Strangely enough the market seems to be quite niche. They’re only used to creating costumes for horses for us.
"We kept the unicorn quite quiet last year, partly because we didn’t want to ruin what we hoped would be this element of surprise.
"And I have to say that as the sun set and the unicorn turned up – she came down onto the museum grounds with this beautiful lady with long blonde hair sat on her back – the look of wonder on the faces of these kids who had grown up with top-of-the-range computer games and graphics was just genuinely magical, I’ve never seen anything quite like it."
This year the museum is theming the whole event around the idea of a quest. Bringing the museum to life in a completely different way, they will be encouraging families and children in particular to go on the quest and prove that they’re worthy of being a knight or a lady of King Arthur’s court.
A series of mythological objects and "magical things" will be hidden around the museum for children to find and learn about the virtues and qualities associated with being a knight.
Along the way they will also meet a range of legendary characters and the kids will have to sort the good from the bad and avoid being tricked.
"It takes a lot of planning," says Sian, "we started thinking about it straight after last year’s event finished, pretty much at midnight. From the feedback, people just had a brilliant time.
"The museum’s a beautiful place to be after dark anyway, but this was really magical, so we thought ‘well, what can we do that’s bigger and better and different?’
"Part of the feedback was that families wanted something for slightly older children. So we looked at incorporating this quest as well, to give the whole family something to do together."
As well as a range of enchanted crafts, there will be a knight’s school, a fancy dress competition and the author, Kate O’Hearn, who’s coming in to do some workshops.
A perfect fit for the venue, O' Hearn's popular Pegasus series of fantasy novels for children features - you guessed it - a Pegasus.
"She’s a brilliant author and fantastic fun," adds Sian. "She’s going to bring along her own monsters as well. She’s going to do a photo shoot on the Pegasus – she said it’s one of her dreams.
There will also be storytelling by firelight in the museum's roundhouse, which Sian says "is going to be brilliant, getting kids really enthusiastic and involved in building stories and literacy and then a book signing as well, which is just fab".
As a small independent museum with little funding, Chiltern Open Air has built up a reputation for thinking creatively. A glance at the events programme reveals a healthy range of living history events and rural crafts and traditions from Roman Army re-enactors to Heavy Horse weekends.
"I’ve got a great team of event volunteers who are 150 percent behind this," says Sian. "They come up with bigger and better ideas every time I speak to them – sound effects and lights and smoke machines and crystal balls, brilliant things."
"As the sun sets over the village green and you sit back under the lime tree with a glass of Pimms you think ‘yeah, this is worth coming to – this is a pretty enchanted place.’”
Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter@MuseumsAtNight.
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