Reading matters - Museums Association

Reading matters

There is a great public interest in literature, but museums need to find novel approaches to making writers and their work come alive for visitors. By Deborah Mulhearn
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Deborah Mulhearn
Whether it’s Jane Austen or James Joyce, most of us love to delve into the lives of our favourite authors as well as read their books.

The popularity of writers’ museums and historic homes would seem to bear this out, although it is a challenge to make printed material such as manuscripts compelling for visitors.

“Writers’ museums work well for people who are familiar with the texts, but for people going in cold they get very little from seeing manuscripts in display cases,” says Nat Edwards, the director of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayrshire. “It’s often a mixture of beautiful and important scholarly texts jumbled up with some loosely-related items.”

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has seen visitor figures soar since it reopened in a £21m purpose-built museum in December 2010. The museum was on the four-strong shortlist for this year’s Art Fund Prize and can expect to meet its forecast of 500,000 visitors this year.

But creating the new museum was not straightforward. While Burns is almost a secular saint in Scotland, very few objects that he owned survive.

“In a way this freed us up,” says Edwards. “We haven’t slavishly reproduced the original interior of the cottage, but rather tried to give a sense of what formed his childhood imagination – his mother’s songs and the ghost stories that inspired his poem Tam o’Shanter.

“We wanted to move away from the idea of the birthplace as a place of pilgrimage,” Edwards continues.

“The spell of the place encompasses the cottage, the landscape, the weather, the culture. It’s not a shrine, but a place of inspiration, and that’s what we wanted to draw out. We want people to go away thinking about his poetry and language and music, and feel inspired.”

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is also on the up following a programme of conservation and improved interpretation at the various properties it manages in Stratford-upon-Avon.

It has been helped by the discovery of the controversial Cobbe Shakespeare portrait in 2009, which formed the centrepiece of an exhibition called Shakespeare Found. In 2010 the five Shakespeare Houses & Gardens welcomed 764,000 visitors, up from 686,000 in 2008.

But writers can fall out of fashion too. The number of people visiting Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museums has been falling (from more than 66,000 in 2006 to less than 55,000 in 2009), despite being based in the tourist hotspot of the Lake District.

William Wordsworth lived with his family at Dove Cottage in Grasmere between 1799 and 1808. He wrote his most famous poems there and the cottage retains the spirit of the time, as it features the Wordsworths’ furniture and belongings.

The manuscripts and early printed poetry books can be seen in the adjacent Wordsworth Museum. This was opened in 1981, though there has been a museum on the site since 1936. But the displays are dated, and the Wordsworth Trust has plans to inject long-overdue investment and revitalise the site.

“It can be a disjointed experience,” says Wordsworth Trust director Michael McGregor. “We want to move away from the notion that it’s a cottage and a separate museum and make it a more fluid experience. The cottage is limited as to how many people it can hold, but the museum could take a more thematic approach and become relevant to a broader spectrum of visitors.

"We are competing with other venues in the Lake District where most people come for more active than contemplative experiences. People are on budgets – not just time and money, but energy as well.”

McGregor says the trust runs a successful events programme that shines a light on different aspects of the collection, and it has also been nurturing contemporary poetry with readings and residencies. The plan is to help the whole visitor experience catch up with this type of activity.

One of the difficulties of interpreting birthplace museums and homes of writers is that they attract visitors who may be as interested in architecture, gardens and social history as in the famous inhabitant. Some visitors will not be familiar with the work, and will be happy to immerse themselves in the sense of place and history.
The amount of material on display relating to the writer’s life and work also differs widely from place to place. Where manuscripts and books can be displayed, the challenge is to engage visitors with the words and text. But manuscripts can be held in archives and libraries remote from the house.

The novelist Elizabeth Gaskell lived at 84 Plymouth Grove in Manchester from 1850 until her death in 1865. She wrote all but one of her books there; however, the manuscripts are held at the John Rylands Library in Manchester’s city centre.

The house is undergoing renovation and only the ground floor is open to the public, but the combination of a well-established events and exhibitions programme run by the Gaskell Society, the Cranford television series on BBC1, and last year’s bicentenary of Gaskell’s birth, have kept the project in the public eye.

“The Gaskells’ house will focus on the books, but it appeals on many levels, not just the literary,” says Janet Allan, chairwoman of Manchester Historic Buildings Trust, which owns the building. “It’s one of the few women writers’ houses open to the public.

“The Gaskells were Unitarians and fully involved with the religious, educational and social issues of their day – issues which still resonate in this part of Manchester,” Allan continues.

“It will also make a massive difference to the local community. It changes people’s perception of an area if you renovate and use a historic building, and it can spearhead further regeneration. It’s also a beautiful house in its own right.”

Contemporary writers have a place in museums, too, argues Bill Longshaw, a social history curator at National Museums Liverpool (NML) who worked on the writers’ gallery at the £72m Museum of Liverpool, which opened in July. Writing Liverpool is one element of the Wondrous Place gallery, which looks at Liverpool’s creative and cultural life.

“The social turbulence of the 20th century and the writing that came out of that fits in with the contemporary theme of Liverpool as a creative city,” says Longshaw.

The content is drawn from television drama, performance poetry, scriptwriting and theatre, though displays overlap with the other elements of the Wondrous Place gallery, particularly music. For example there is a poetry jukebox that offers poems from the 1960s Mersey Sound poets, but also contemporary Liverpool poetry.

“You can’t separate writing from music and performance in a city with such a strong oral tradition,” says Longshaw. Contemporary writers, including Jimmy McGovern, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, talk about their influences and the impact of their work, not ducking sensitive subjects such as stereotyping.

“We are looking at the achievements, but within the context of the city, asking why it has been so successful and its legacies – both good and bad,” says Longshaw. “It’s an overview but also it is intended to convey that writing in Liverpool is alive and well.”

Children’s books would seem to be easier to display because they have colour, striking illustrations and familiar characters. However, exhibitions of children’s books have to appeal to all ages, points out Gill Rennie, the senior exhibitions curator at Seven Stories in Newcastle upon Tyne, as many of the visitors are adults.

Seven Stories works with living authors and illustrators to produce exhibitions and stage workshops and other events. “We take our lead from how involved they want to be and what original material is available,” says Rennie.

“With one person and their work – as with the current exhibition, Through the Magic Mirror, the World of Anthony Browne – we are working within given boundaries. We always look at the process, how somebody writes or illustrates, always using it as a stepping stone to children’s creativity.

“We draw on our collections as much as possible and we acquire material with a view to how it would be exhibited,” Rennie continues. “The aim is to engage children with original material, and to nurture early readers into becoming adult readers but also gallery-goers.”

A lifesize cut-out of Browne is positioned at the start of the exhibition, with his back to visitors but with his face visible through a mirror.

“I liked this, it gave a presence and it seemed to follow you around. It gives the stories a life beyond the text,” says the author, who finished a two-year stint as children’s laureate in June.

“When I saw the projections I was a little concerned that there was too much going on. My pictures are fairly quiet and I worried that they would be in competition with the busy spaces of the exhibition, which has roomsets and walls covered in items and illustrations.

"But when I saw the finished displays I thought it worked well. It’s intimate enough to engage and excite. I like that it’s messy, like a life is.”

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist.

Museum of Liverpool review, p42

Once upon a wartime: classic war stories for children

This exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), London, features five children’s books that address the impact of war on children’s lives: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo; Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden; The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier; The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall; and Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley.

“From each book we took a theme: loyalty; separation; excitement; survival; and identity,” explains Sarah Gilbert, the head of exhibitions at IWM.

“Deciding how to best formulate the exhibition was a lengthy process. We wanted the broadest appeal, so we chose books that covered different conflicts and time periods. We created roomsets wherever possible, using material from our collections to bring the books, but also the history, to life.

“We wanted an immersive experience, especially for those that haven’t read the books, so we filmed children from a theatre school to create a storyboard,” Gilbert says.

“We used film footage, posters, letters, and photographs. We wanted it to be as sensory as possible so, for example, we had the noise of horses on the frontline for War Horse, and a soundtrack of planes playing above the den created for The Machine Gunners.”

The living writers were filmed talking about their inspiration for the books.

“We wanted visitors to appreciate the process of writing and also encourage them to read and write,” adds Gilbert. “It had to work on all age levels, and the biggest challenge was to bring it into to the 21st century. It was difficult to find a book that looked at modern war and the impact on children’s lives.”

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