How to do books properly: The Story Museum, Oxford

Books for children are the best; they’re the ones that stay with you forever. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Where The Wild Things Are, the Narnia books, Just William… I think adults sometimes forget just what books MEAN to children, which is silly because they were all children once too. I am SO lucky to be living near Oxford alongside the development of the Story Museum. Because the people who run the Story Museum know JUST what kind of magic some books for children can create.

Today I took my six-year-old daughter to see their latest exhibition. Titled ’26 Characters’ it’s a photography thing at heart: twenty-six authors for children were invited to dress up as their favourite story characters and have posh photos taken. Silly me, I thought it might be a bit boring for my daughter to look at photos of authors she doesn’t know dressed up as characters she isn’t very familiar with yet. I should have had more faith in the genius imaginations working at the Museum.

For a start, you have to understand that the Story Museum isn’t your typical museum. It’s interactive. There are breakable things THAT YOU ARE ALLOWED TO HANDLE. There are plugs and wires and sometimes things aren’t quite stuck on properly, and not everything works perfectly. But you can run riot because this place is…organised chaos. It’s CHILDREN. So each author/character has their own little area or room, and each area is decorated to match the relevant book.

Where The Wild Things Are - and YES, you can jump on the bed
Where The Wild Things Are – and YES, you can jump on the bed

There were rooms for Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and a laboratory for Jekyll and Hyde. Some areas were quite small and you had to look pretty hard to find the things you were looking for:

The Owl and the Pussycat, complete with tiny guitar and honey pot of money
The Owl and the Pussycat, complete with tiny guitar and honey pot of money
The Borrowers - living underneath a sink!
The Borrowers – living underneath a sink!

There was Terry Pratchett in a shed, dressed as Just William. There was Neil Gaiman as Badger, in a comfortable room with china cups and saucers, the sound of a whistling kettle, and strings of onions and garlic:

Jemima listens to the extract whilst reading along - book provided in each room
Jemima listens to the extract whilst reading along – book provided in each room
Not totally sure she was meant to put the pipe in her mouth...!
Not totally sure she was meant to put the pipe in her mouth…!

My personal favourite, and the one that gave me real chills, was stepping through a wardrobe (yes! through hanging fur coats!) into Narnia. There was snow on a glitttery floor. There were trees. There was a lamp post. And there was the White Witch’s sleigh, complete with empty box smelling of Turkish Delight and another mini tablet which played you a short extract from the book. Lucky Holly Smale, getting to dress up as Jadis the White Witch and being projected in all her icy glory onto the wall! (I have no photos of that room because it’s quite dark, and besides, a photo wouldn’t give you the magic.)

Jemima made me scrub the decks for Long John Silver!
Jemima made me scrub the decks for Long John Silver!
Even the toilets were decorated!
Even the toilets were decorated!

Unquestionably though, the biggest success for my daughter was the Throne Room. What a truly original and brilliant idea. First of all, a whole WALL of dressing up clothes to choose from (in all sizes, from small child to extra-large grownup). And THEN, a throne that you could sit on (take THAT, fancy houses with ropes across all your nice sofas) that would actually ANNOUNCE you, complete with fanfare! Announce you as what, I hear you ask? WELL, that is part of the genius. You pick an empty slate, and fill it with the words of your own choosing from the tens on the racks. And then you walk towards the throne holding your slate, sit on the throne – and the throne announces exactly what you’ve chosen!

Jemima, dressed as Alice, with her first choice of words
Jemima, dressed as Alice, with her first choice of words
Dressed as Robin Hood, with another selection...
Dressed as Robin Hood, with another selection…
You could also be quite silly...
You could also be quite silly…

We had an absolute ball. I came away green with envy, thinking of the people who work on the creative team at the Story Museum. How wonderful, to be able to have empty rooms that you can fill with the magic of your choosing – the magic created by worlds in children’s books. Big thumbs-up to the Story Museum 🙂

The exhibition is on until 2nd November, and I do urge everyone to go and see it. In terms of age of kids who will enjoy it, I think it’s suitable for everyone. I could have taken my two-year-old and she’d have loved it. Wouldn’t have understood over half of the content, of course, but that wouldn’t matter. There are so many little delights to discover – and she also would have adored the dressing up.

For more information, check out the Story Museum website

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