Trendswatch – book clubs

Museums are starting a new chapter in an attempt to engage more people with their collections, says Deborah Mulhearn
Profile image for Deborah Mulhearn
Deborah Mulhearn
“Woking is ready for literary life,” says Louise Musgrove, the commercial manager of the Lightbox in Woking, Surrey, whose book club has been a hit since it began last spring. “We choose thought-provoking reads from which people take as much or as little as they want.”

The books picked are sometimes connected to the wider gallery collections or an exhibition. “For example, The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of JMW Turner by Franny Moyle tied in with our Turner in Surrey exhibition, which ended in March, and we also invited the writer for a talk at our literary festival,” Musgrove adds.

Whether it’s a chance to engage adults with collections through literature, or as an alternative to curators’ talks, museum book clubs are gaining in popularity. Venues have rich seams of literary potential in their collections and shows. Local authors, contemporary and historic, can be championed and museums with scientific, philosophical or social history themes can also tap into literature and books.

The Lightbox book club was a logical adjunct to its literary festival, which is in its second incarnation, and extends the museum’s literary offering through the year. “Sometimes we stock the books in our shop and we are supported by Woking library,” says Musgrove.

Story telling

For the Story Museum in Oxford the monthly book club is a natural extension of its collections. “It’s another way to share stories with like-minded people,” says its learning officer Cath Hogan. “We are interested in stories in all forms: written, oral and digital.”

Teachers, librarians, master’s students and others with specialist interests in children’s and young adult literature attend, as well as the public. “Sometimes we have a theme tied to an exhibition, the collections or an author, but we don’t necessarily focus on a single book,” says Hogan.

“We look at the Cilip Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards shortlists, so we have a contemporary focus, but also read classics. The club is largely self-led but we also invite experts. For example, we had an expert in 1920s and 1930s school stories who led a session. One session deconstructed picture books and another looked at stories in translation.”

Hogan adds: “It’s not didactic – it’s very much about reading for pleasure rather than being curriculum-based.”

At the York Museums Trust club, books that cover specific periods or concentrate on particular themes, objects or places are chosen. “We look for content that we can enrich with artefacts, artworks or specimens in our collections,” says Kirstie Blything, the venue’s learning manager. “So we opted for Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash when we had a Nash exhibition at York Art Gallery, and this summer quite a few books relate to the first world war to run alongside our exhibition, 1914: When the World Changed Forever, at York Castle Museum.”

She adds: “As an activity open to anyone, the atmosphere is safe, welcoming and informal, with plenty of chat. It is also often a chance to learn about our collections.”

The Migration Museum in London takes a different approach. Its new book club is a initiative set up by museum volunteers Naomi Munro-Lott and Emine Yeter. “It is based around a monthly theme rather than a book,” says Munro-Lott. “As a new arrival to London, what struck me most is its diversity and variety, and this is what we want to reflect.”

Attendees are invited to bring a book, poem, article or piece of their writing to discuss, with the themes revolving around subjects explored through the exhibitions and events. “We have had Vietnamese poetry and works in translation, migration through feminist perspectives and classic and modern-day stories of migration,” says Munro-Lott. “One theme was forced migration and refugees, and Windrush is our second theme, spurred on by its topical relevance. The recommended books are The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, Kitch by Anthony Joseph and Daughters of Empire by Lakshmi Persaud.”

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance writer

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