The project scope

‘Great Expectations’ was an HLF funded project to redisplay The Charles Dickens Museum and enhance access, physically and intellectually, to the home, the collections and the works of Dickens. Crucial to the approach was being able to connect No 48 Doughty Street with No 49 next door to provide supporting services. This meant Dickens’s home from 1837 to 1839 could be recreated, utilising furniture from throughout his life and personal objects and ephemera. A lift at the rear of the building and jib door entry on each floor between No 49 and 48 facilitates visitor flow and movement.

The design rationale

Within this architectural and conservation approach, our remit was to enable the visitor to become immersed within Dickens’s life. This was Dickens’s first home in London with his wife, Catherine, and young family. At the time he was just beginning to make his name in the literary scene and to make his way within London society. It was important that the design and interpretive approach reflected this point in Dickens’s life and not just the bearded, serious looking man whom we have come to recognise from the popular images of the author. Visitors should experience an emotional connection, a sense that they were within a family home, not a museum exhibition.

Charles Dickens’s ghost welcomes guests to explore his home and his life.

Charles Dickens’s ghost welcomes guests to explore his home and his life.

Dickens’s many interests included the theatre, a passion he held throughout his life. His writing has a dramatic flair which he exploited in his book-reading tours, performing the many characters and parts himself in his own adaptations. Dickens loved to entertain others and received people into this home for dinner and his readings. The design rationale, therefore, was to include the creation of a sense of the theatrical, encouraging visitors to ‘suspend their disbelief’.

As part of achieving these, the design intent was to minimise the impact visually and physically of interpretation within the recreated rooms, using media which might be ‘found’ in the spaces and complemented by the exhibition space next door and, of course, the knowledgeable museum staff and volunteer guides. Dickens’s furniture is on open display, mixed with period pieces on which visitors can actually sit. Small objects are integrated in cases which are positioned above the appropriate furniture, giving the impression of being left in place after use.

Personal objects within the collection encourage a connection with the man as well as the writer

Personal objects within the collection encourage a connection with the man as well as the writer

The design delivered

The design utilises the various floors of the building to take the visitor on a journey through Dickens’s interests, family and life. From their arrival, through a jib door, into the entrance hall, visitors can discover the complex layers of Dickens’s story:

The ground floor reflects his social and literary climb in the dining room, where he entertained his influential guests, as well as the family behind the scenes in his wife Catherine’s morning room

Below, in the basement, the kitchens reflect the work which went on to enable Dickens’s socialising, the role of Catherine and the servants, as well as Dickens’s own working class origins

The first floor gives vent to Dickens’s theatricality, and the drawing room provides a performance space, while his study shows his writing, on many projects at once and with familiar objects to support his imagination

Rising to the second floor, life for Dickens becomes more intimate, and more emotionally challenging, in the room where his sister-in-law died and his own bedroom, where his life-long ill health and his relationships with women are revealed

Reaching the attic rooms, we reach back into Dickens’s mind and into his childhood, discovering what influenced his attitudes and his writing

Immersing themselves in the life and influences of Charles Dickens; a group of children stand behind the Marchalsea grill, the window of the debtors prison which cast a shadow over Dickens’s childhood.

Immersing themselves in the life and influences of Charles Dickens; a group of children stand behind the Marchalsea grill, the window of the debtors prison which cast a shadow over Dickens’s childhood.

The spirit connected

‘Dickens’s presence is remarkably strong here’ Simon Callow, actor and museum patron

The approach seems, from visitor feedback within the first 6 months of the museum being opened, to have achieved the design intent.

The feeling I got was that I was visiting a friend’s home’ ‘Beautifully displayed and impressively evocative’ ‘Atmospheric, thought-provoking and inspiring. Not to mention educational’

The first month of opening achieved in excess of 10,000 visitors, a 135% increase on previous years. The increase was most particularly evident in family visits and in under 16s. In focusing on the family home and the life of Dickens, it has been possible to create a place of relevance for today’s families.

We can leave it to two young siblings, whose comments were captured on their visit to the museum, to have the last word …

‘Please sir, can we see some more?’

A Dickensian challenge ….

Have you found the spirit of Dickens? Can you answer these quick quiz questions:

1. Who wrote Dickens’s first biography?

2. How was Dickens’s grandmother employed?

3. Which of Dickens’s novels were written in Doughty Street?

4. Which of Dickens’s female characters was influenced by his sister-in-law’s early death?

5. Where was Dickens made to work as a child?

Visit www.plbltd.com/dickens to find out if you were right!

To find out more about The Charles Dickens Museum, click on www.dickensmuseum.com.

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