Geeky Oxford–26 Characters and The Story Museum

Geeky Oxford: 26 Characters and the Story Museum
View from a courtyard window over Oxford, the story loom, and Neill Cameron’s comic strip. All photographs © Helen Barker.

There’s no denying it: I love stories. One of the things I love the most about stories is their ability to transport you into a completely different time and place, and to allow you to see the world through someone else’s eyes. My first forays out into the world were taken using someone else’s shoes, living their adventures. This is why I’m so passionate about reading and sharing stories.

In Pembroke Street, a fairly quiet back road in the middle of Oxford, there is a red telephone box. This seemed like any normal telephone box, until all manner of interesting things started to appear inside it, such as an Owl and the Pussycat-themed display.

The telephone box belongs to the building alongside, which has been developed over the past five years into The Story Museum. Although The Story Museum has been active over that time, particularly by running workshops in local schools, the buildings themselves have been mainly under renovation. It was therefore with much fanfare and celebration that the buildings were opened last month, along with a new exhibition called 26 Characters.

I had heard of the 26 Characters exhibition last August, when I was lucky enough to be in the audience for an absolutely fantastic talk between two of my favorite authors, Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman. Gaiman mentioned that he’d been dressed up as a badger that day, which led into lots of discussion about The Wind in the Willows. Pullman also talked about his photo session for the same exhibition, although he was a little more shy about revealing his character. It was explained that each of the authors had dressed up as a favorite character from their childhood, and that an exhibition would be based around these photographs. I realized then that this was something really special, and that I would definitely be visiting once the exhibition opened.

Imagine the days falling from the calendar, and we fast forward through eight months. Finally, The Story Museum opened its doors and the 26 Characters exhibition began. My daughter and I were lucky enough to spend the whole day at The Story Museum, firstly taking part in an author experience with Mini Grey in the morning, followed by the 26 Characters exhibition in the afternoon.

We started by exploring the Throne Room, which encourages children to concoct new characters. You build up a character by choosing appropriate cards that slot into a holder, such as “The Noisy Duck of the Moon.” Once you’ve created your character, you can use the huge array of dress-up clothes (in child and adult sizes!) to come up with an appropriate costume. A helper even found my daughter an enormous egg for her duck costume, which she loved. Once you are suitably attired, you walk down the red carpet towards a huge throne, where you are announced to everyone present as you sit. It’s silly and funny and incredibly enjoyable. We only stopped making up new characters when it was time to head downstairs for the author experience with Mini Grey.

Dragon on talking throne. Pic Duncan Saunders
A dragon on the talking throne. Photograph by Duncan Saunders.

We thoroughly enjoyed meeting Grey and finding out about her brilliant new book, Hermelin: The Detective Mouse (which I recommended in our Between the Bookends feature). I liked seeing how Grey worked on her ideas for the book and took inspiration from all sorts of objects, from childhood toys to cheese boxes. My daughter loved hearing Grey read the story, as well as making her own little white mouse. We also made our own “Lost” posters featuring an array of cats and other, slightly more exotic, missing pets. After a fun filled hour and a half, we headed off for lunch, filled with excitement about Hermelin’s adventures.

Mini Grey's characters
My daughter poses with her Hermelin and some of Mini Grey’s other characters. Photograph © Helen Barker.

After a sandwich and a rest, we headed back to tackle the 26 Characters exhibition. I had expected perhaps a few photographs and maybe some explanation about the books, but what we found there absolutely blew me away. The exhibition is built around Cambridge Jones’ wonderful portraits, but these work alongside an immersive experience which brings each story to life by using a range of multimedia techniques. They’ve used the slightly dilapidated buildings wonderfully, using small rooms and kitchens, and in one funny instance, the toilets, to build world after world. You peer through pots and pans to spy The Borrowers‘ home, search for The Scarlet Pimpernel, push through fur coats to enter Narnia, clap to hear Tinker Bell, and swab the deck of a pirate ship. It’s quite simply breathtaking.

Peering into the Borrowers' living room. Photograph by Alex Coke.
Peering into The Borrowers‘ living room. Photograph by Alex Coke.

Although my daughter is a little young to have read most of the books, she knew quite a few (such as Where the Wild Things Are and Peter Pan from Peter and Wendy), and I was able to explain about the characters and stories that she wasn’t familiar with. She found Malorie Blackman’s Wicked Witch of the West quite scary and had to be carried through Narnia, but then again, I also found the White Witch terrifying as a child! Her favorite section was based around The Owl and the Pussycat, featuring author Julia Donaldson. I, of course, was thrilled to visit Badger’s burrow, which certainly lived up to Kenneth Grahame’s description:

“The ruddy brick floor smiled up at the smoky ceiling; the oaken settles, shiny with long wear, exchanged cheerful glances with each other; plates on the dresser grinned at pots on the shelf, and the merry firelight flickered and played over everything without distinction.”

The aim is to take your time in this exhibition, as there are lots of places to sit and revel in the stories, whether meeting new characters or settling down with familiar ones. The dual nature of the exhibition means that it not only tells you about the character and the story, but also gives you an insight into the authors, both through their photograph and the character that they have chosen to portray. The different activities in the rooms include treats such as listening to the author telling a story; for example, Jamila Gavin telling the tale of Hanuman the Monkey God. Or you can read the story yourself, all while sitting in a sleigh or on Max’s bed. Other story extracts are read by wonderful actors, such as Olivia Colman or GeekMom favorite Christopher Eccleston.

26 Characters Merlin. Pic Alex Coke
Kevin Crossley-Holland as Merlin. Photograph by Alex Coke.

The range of such high-profile authors who have been involved, including Michael Morpurgo, Terry Pratchett, Anthony Horowitz, Charlie Higson, Shirley Hughes, and Terry Jones, shows just how important this exhibition and the museum that houses it are. The whole exhibition is a love song to stories, a celebration of everything that makes stories great, and quite honestly, one of my favorite museum experiences ever.

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The Story Museum will develop over the next few years, as they continue to renovate the buildings and expand their exhibition spaces. They are already offering a huge range of events, including author and illustrator events, wonder walks, and printing workshops on the Bodleian’s antique printing presses. Details of all of these events and more can be found on their website. This promises to become a very special museum indeed, and I am delighted and excited to see what happens next in their very own story.