What happens when 26 children’s authors are dressed up as their favourite fictional creations?

26 Characters

By John Garth

Facing a big throne nestled among an array of trumpety horns, the boy holds up a slotted board filled with words from a fantastical pick’n’mix. He steps up and perches on the cushioned seat. Trumpets blare. A voice announces: ‘Presenting the flying! lion! of Wonderland!’

Here I must own up: the ‘child’ is me, and it’s been decades since I was in short trousers. But Oxford’s new Story Museum has that effect on visitors. As co-director Kim Pickin guides me around the site and its debut exhibition 26 Characters, I repeatedly find myself seeing it all through my own childhood eyes, or picturing how my five-year-old daughter will enjoy everything here. My audio recording of this peregrinatory interview is peppered with heartfelt wows and goshes.

For the exhibition, 26 children’s authors were dressed up as their favourite fictional characters for photographs by celebrity portraitist Cambridge Jones. Each portrait presides over a room tricked out to evoke the relevant story, which can be heard on headsets. Terry Pratchett’s Just William has a garden shed full of boyish bits and pieces, Benjamin Zephaniah’s Anansi the Spider has a basket of stories, Neil Gaiman’s Badger is in a room with roots growing in through the walls, Holly Smale’s White Witch looks over in a snowy landscape accessed through a wardrobe and complete with royal sled….

The throne room is a particularly entertaining space. The throne appears to ‘read’ the fantasy identity you have just selected from a pick’n’mix array of word tiles. Children (genuine ones only, mind you) can also dress up – the rack of fancy dress runs the length of a long wall. And facing the throne at the other end of the room is a gigantic piece of steampunk gadgetry: a ‘Victorian story loom’ with its own back story connected to Lewis Carroll, who used to work just across St Ebbe’s at Christ Church. 

26 Characters

‘Arguably this is the children’s literature capital, and a lot of Oxford children’s literature is building on deep old oral myths, and now moving into films and games – a marvellous continuity,’ says Kim.

But from the beginnings of the Story Museum ten years ago, its remit was seen as much broader than that of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. ‘It began with just an idea – no money, no organisation behind it – that story is fantastically important to every field of human endeavour, and wouldn’t it be interesting to make a place that was about story and all the different ways in which it emerges – books, films, orally, dance, art, all sorts of things,’ recalls Kim. ‘Literature is one of Britain’s best-loved exports. We’re a country of language with a fantastic literary heritage.’

In Oxford — centrally located, heavily visited and educationally polarised — it was hoped that a real, physical museum could be both useful and commercially viable. But initially the plan for an actual centre was put on the backburner, while the the new-found charity established itself through one-off events and other projects in schools. This particularly involved efforts to counter word-poverty and low oracy arising from lack of verbal contact between children and their parents.

‘We found that simple face-to-face storytelling was one of the best things for this,’ says Kim. Children would be told the story, and then would explore it again in various mnemonic ways, so that in the end they could retell it themselves. Storytellingschools.com was so successful that it has now become an independent entity, allowing the Story Museum charity to turn its energies to establishing a venue. 

26 Characters

Meanwhile, the charity continued looking for a site in Oxford and someone who would fund its acquisition. The turning point was the 2008 crash, when a developer who had been acquiring parcels of land for a shopping mall decided to start offloading parts of the property portfolio. At the end of 2009, a philanthropist put up the money for a long lease on a ranging building, Rochester House in Pembroke Street.

‘It has all sorts of character and eccentricities which a new building wouldn’t have,’ says Kim. ‘And it’s very big, but this is the size we were looking for.’ It will provide room to reflect different aspects of story, to screen movies, put on shows, accommodate installations, give classes, provide teacher training, and so on.

The charity moved in in autumn 2010. Since then it has been renovating the site piecemeal, with funding from the Arts Council and several foundations and individual benefactors. A large Arts Council fund supported the extensive renovation of the front part of the building. ‘The University has a reclamation warehouse which they very generously let us plunder, so you’ll see old chapel screens and doorways and furniture that have come from colleges.’

What the charity learned from its early storytelling outreach operation continues to inform what it does now, including 26 Characters. ‘Children need to develop through the same history as we have done as a race: story is an oral thing for a long term, and then it becomes a written-down thing, and then there are all the digital permutations,’ explains Kim. ‘If you go straight to digital at six months old, you’re not necessarily going to make it all the way through. This exhibition reflects that. Some of the authors automatically went for oral characters; and many of the characters have also ended up in films and games.’

Kim and her team are now beginning to develop ideas for next year’s exhibition. But 26 Characters is on until 2 November. If you are terribly, terribly adult and can’t bear the thought of rediscovering your inner child, steer clear.

John Garth is the author of Tolkien and the Great War (HarperCollins) and has also written on the Bodleian’s Magical Books exhibition and on authors including C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley and Alan Garner.

All images by Cambridge Jones and The Story Museum.