The biggest story in Oxford right now is unfolding in a former telephone exchange, hidden from public view. But tomorrow the doors will open.
SINCE it was bought with £2.2m from two mysterious donors in 2009, Rochester House, in Pembroke Street, Oxford, has been transformed into a fantasy wonderland.
Every room in the sprawling, three-storey complex off St Aldate’s is like walking into the pages of a children’s story – Middle Earth, Narnia or Treasure Island.
When it opens tomorrow, the army of staff and volunteers who have been working for five years to transform the dilapidated structure into The Story Museum are hoping it will be filled with the sound of children, learning the joy of stories.
All that founder Kim Pickin will say about the philanthropic couple is that they are from the “financial world”, and although they have Oxford connections, they do not live here.
For Ms Pickin, 55, mum of three boys, the opening of the museum is the realisation of more than a decade of planning.
In 2003, she and John Lange, director of the Household Cavalry Museum in London, decided the “city of stories” needed a story museum.
Since 2005, the ever-growing team has run travelling story-telling events around the city and organised Alice’s Day each year. But they have also raised £1m, including £600,000 from the Arts Council, to turn their house into a home.
Tomorrow, the museum will open its first exhibition – 26 Characters, for which 26 authors have dressed up as their favourite creation from children’s fiction.
Philip Pullman, the author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, chose Treasure Island, comedian Charlie Higson dressed as Boromir from The Lord of The Rings, and Terry Pratchett pulled on some short trousers and an over-sized tie to be Just William for a day.
Each author’s portrait will be hung in a room transformed into a scene from the stories.
The idea behind the exhibition, which will be accompanied by a summer of star-studded storytelling events, is sharing the joy of a good yarn. And at the heart of the museum will be its ever-growing collection of stories.
Ms Pickin, who lives with her husband and their son Jono in Frenchay Road, North Oxford, said: “I had always fantasised ‘wouldn’t it be cool if there was a place where you could really immerse yourself in stories in all their forms – read them, write them, and enter those worlds’.
“We make museums for all sorts of things that are important to us, maritime history and impressionist art, but one of Britain’s best-loved exports is stories.
“And you can collect stories without books. We have an oral tradition in storytelling and you can film them or record them.
“Like [Roald Dahl’s] Big Friendly Giant, who collects dreams in jars, we are going around hoovering up stories and bottling them.”
Ms Pickin said the museum, and stories in general, have an important educational role.
“There is something very important that stories do in terms of stimulating the language part of the brain.
“More than half of children are arriving at school with spoken language too poor to learn with, and storytelling helps them to catch up.
“When I had my own children I found it was a massive help to their understanding of the world.
“Each story is also an exercise in empathy so it has a huge importance in emotional intelligence.”
But, she added, in order to be educational, the museum needs to be fun.
“We’re not spinach, but we’re not chocolate either – we’re strawberries.”
The exhibition will run until November 2, and tickets cost £7.50 for adults, £5 for concessions.
Visitors will get story maps to guide them around the twisting corridors of the museum.
Ms Pickin said: “We’re hoping if you haven’t already read it, the museum will inspire you to pick up the book.”
But the museum is far from complete. Much of it has no central heating or insulation.
The museum, now a registered charity, is hoping to raise a further £7m to complete its work.
In the meantime, they hope that a new gift shop and café will help them raise their £400,000 annual running costs.
Ms Pickin said: “It hasn’t been easy but it has been happening and I am very keen for it to happen quickly, so we can get to the stage where it can fuel itself and we can be masters of our own destiny.”
Find out more at storymuseum.org.uk
Kim Pickin in the Badger’s Parlour
TELLING TALES ABOUT IMPORTANCE OF IMAGINATION
PERHAPS surprisingly, it wasn’t her psychology degree at Oxford or motherhood that taught Kim Pickin the importance of stories – but her work in branding.
Working in marketing in London, she discovered the most important element of advertising – getting people to remember a message – was to tell a story.
Then, bringing up her own children, she saw the benefit of learning stories by engaging with them, a practice The Story Museum has taken into classrooms around Oxfordshire.
She said: “If you need to explain anything to a child, put it into a story.
“In intellectual terms there is an advantage to reading a story as opposed to watching it on film because you have to supply all the pictures.
“You use your imagination to flesh the story out so your brain has to work a lot harder connecting memory and language. Watching film is really quite passive.
“Stories are like viruses — there is something in them that makes you want to pass them on.”
Alix Harwood in the Merlin Room
A touch of film magic
ALIX Harwood helped design sets for the Harry Potter movies and Thor, but she spends her spare time at The Story Museum.
Ms Harwood, from Dorset, got involved with the museum through its Other Worlds exhibition and stayed in touch.
For the 26 Characters exhibition she has been doing everything from tying fabric leaves on to a tree for the story of Hanuman the monkey god, to spray-painting Pegasus gold.
She said: “I find it a very creative environment.
“When you work on these films you are following someone else’s brief, whereas with this I was given a specification and I can follow it how I like. It allows me to be more free and creative.”
2003: Story Museum established and starts life as a ‘virtual’ museums 2005: Educational outreach programme launched. Author events and workshops introduced in schools and communitiess
JULY 2007: The first Alice’s Day is launched and coordinated by The Story Museum.
November 2009: Acquires a permanent, and dilapidated, home in Pembroke Street
2010: Basic repairs are carried out and the teams move in during January
August 2011: Architects Purcell are appointed
November 2011: The Story Museum provides a home for the Bodleian’s antique printing presses
September 2012: Planning permission for a ‘cathedral of stories’ submitted to Oxford City Council
December 2012: Project unanimously approved by Oxford City Council
August 2013: Building work begins on the first chapter of The Story Museum’s transformation
April 2014: The Story Museum partly reopens with newly-refurbished spaces, major exhibition 26 Characters and programme of events
May 2014: Shop and cafe opens