With a mission statement of enriching lives through the power of storytelling, The Story Museum came to be in 2003 – then a virtual enterprise that took stories into local schools and communities. After six successful years in this format, an anonymous donation saw the organisation acquire the lease on a cluster of buildings flanking a courtyard on Oxford’s Pembroke Street.
It wasn’t until 2014, following an initial phase of construction work, that The Story Museum was able to partially open. Having made the best of this set-up – attracting over 150,000 visitors in four years – 2018 was the point when the institution closed its doors to facilitate the transformation of its site into a fully operational, permanent museum.
April this year was due to be the long-awaited culmination of almost two decades’ work. While the scene was set for a Story Museum fairytale, circumstances conspired to hurl the organisation into the realm of Shakespearian tragedy. As Covid-19 took root across Europe in the early months of 2020, opening plans were shelved as the culture sector battened down the hatches in the face of unapparelled financial misery.
“After many months of uncertainty about our future, we are proud to be unveiling our new and most unusual museum. Some plucky protagonists, inevitable jeopardy and the occasional magical intervention have all led us to this moment,” notes Caroline Jones, director and CEO of Story Museum, in suitably poetic tone.
Two such interventions have recently materialised in the form of £210,800 from Arts Council England’s emergency coronavirus support and a further £170,000 from the government’s Culture Recovery Fund – both designed to address lost revenues as a result of delayed opening and limited capacity.
Other grants from Arts Council England, National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Wolfson Foundation, the Foyle Foundation and Nesta Arts Impact Fund were all essential in getting the site ready to welcome visitors. Ongoing support from Arts Council England – as a National Portfolio Organisation – and sizeable gifts from The Tolkien Society and Discworld Foundation have also played a pivotal role in the story so far.
Hundreds of visitors flooding the entrance on the morning of 24th October – the new grand opening date – will sadly not be a reality, with government guidance necessitating entry limited to timed slots for people from a single household bubble.
Nevertheless, the steady stream of visitors that will inevitably dive into Oxford’s world of literary discovery have a plethora of imaginative, playful spaces to explore.
“Our mission is to enrich lives through stories and our reimagined museum will allow us to achieve that for many thousands of people – something that we feel is even more important in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Jones says. “We look forward to welcoming visitors in safely to enjoy the sensory and immersive experiences our galleries will offer.”
What to expect
The Enchanted Library invites visitors into worlds that have previously been confined to their imaginations. Entering the wardrobe as a portal to Narnia, weaving through the parallel realms of His Dark Materials, navigating the dystopian world of Noughts and Crosses or leaping into a magical adventure with festive favourite The Snowman are just some of the activities ready and waiting for visitors of all ages.
Each of the eight rooms feature interactive media and objects relating to different stories, including unique items such as Philip Pullman’s alethiometer, which he personally commissioned and has lent to the museum.
Moving on through the building visitors will find the Whispering Wood, an indoor forest where spoken tales, myths and fables are shared from all over the world. A soundscape comprising snatches of stories from many cultures accompanies an audio tour introducing visitors to important branches of oral storytelling from across the globe – including Indian animal fables of The Panchatantra and the epic Welsh myth cycle The Mabinogion.
The Magic Common Room, a brand-new learning studio inspired by J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, will also provide greater chance for the Story Museum to offer outstanding education sessions. This will also serve as a hub from which much of the organisation’s extensive public programme can operate, including skills courses, workshops, drop-in activities and access visits for those wanting to experience the venue in a more relaxed way.
While lockdown was a stressful time due to the looming uncertainty, it afforded The Story Museum chance to try a range of new things. The 1001 Story Challenge with Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell and live drawing with illustrator Chris Riddell proved great ways of engaging with audiences who had been deprived the chance to visit in person.
Restrictions were slightly relaxed in the summer and from August the reimagined site’s ground floor allowed small numbers of visitors in. This offered a sneak peek of play space Small Worlds and film experience City of Stories, along with access to the café. Live storytelling performances in the external courtyard and guided story walks around Oxford have also enabled staff to stay true to the museum’s founding principles, even under sweeping public health restrictions.
Having engaged with over 44,500 children in the past six years through school visits and on-site education sessions, The Story Museum has never truly closed to the public. Now, after plot twists aplenty, it is finally ready to finally give the nation’s narratives a suitable platform for public appreciation.
While the testing times are hopefully at an end, this ambitious Oxford museum’s story is only just beginning.