Three ways museums are making classic literature more attractive to young readers

Engaging young people is a challenge for museums. Pixel-Shot/Shutterstock

Heather Green, Nottingham Trent University

For many lovers of classic literature, opportunities to devour the works of undiscovered authors can be enough to make people’s eyes light up. For those who aren’t as keen on the genre, the appeal of these titles is a little less obvious. In fact, it’s one of the reasons museum professionals are running into issues when it comes to inspiring new generations to read such works.

Engaging young people is a challenge for museums and the traditional approaches that literary heritage museums take when dealing with classic authors is becoming a problem. This is because literary heritage museums usually focus on presenting the biographical story, personal effects or archival collection of an author. Relevant and interesting perhaps to those already familiar with an author’s works, but perhaps less successful at engaging would-be readers. The language of some of these authors can also be a barrier to new readers, as can the difficulty of reading “a classic” – which might be seen as irrelevant or out of touch with the modern world.

As the community, learning and engagement officer at Wirksworth Heritage Centre in Derbyshire, my role is to engage audiences of all ages with the local history of Wirksworth. A key element to Wirksworth’s heritage is its literary connections to writers (including George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Daniel Defoe) and the inspiration they took from the people and the landscape of Wirksworth. My PhD research considers how literary heritage is presented in museums throughout the country. I have a particular interest in Nottingham, which was awarded the Unesco City of Literature bid in 2015 due to its rich literary heritage, but also has some of the lowest literacy levels in the country.

Since COVID-19, finding new ways to share our literary heritage both inside and outside of museum walls has become incredibly important. So how should museums show that these authors remain relevant in the 21st century? Literary heritage museums are doing this in a whole host of ways, but here are the three examples of approaches I believe are particularly successful.

1. Retelling stories

From the Austen Project to the many graphic novel retellings and classic novels reimagined as text messages, retelling stories with a contemporary twist is a well-trodden (if not always well-reviewed) path. It’s also a method of interpretation that literary heritage museums are beginning to embrace.

Using new and creative formats can remove some of the barriers to young people wanting to experience these stories and can inspire them to try the “real thing”. As part of my own curatorial work with Dorking Museum, I wrote a book entitled Forster in 50 which accompanies the exhibition Forster at 50. The book provides visitors with an overview of five of Forster’s novels in only 50 words with illustrations, providing more of an accessible introduction to EM Forster’s work.

2. Using technology to draw audiences in

Technology and literature may have seemed like a mismatch once upon a time, but more and more museums are using different technologies to engage audiences with their collections. Before its closure in 2016, the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre presented the 1915 censorship trial of Lawrence’s The Rainbow through a series of Twitter posts in their exhibition No Right to Exist: The Rainbow and Other Books Which Shocked. This condensed the complexities of the trial into a series of 140 character posts, allowing younger audiences to explore the debate in a familiar format and go on to consider what we consider scandalous in literature today.

My own work has included the co-production of Walking with Lawrence, a digital walking tour written from Lawrence’s perspective which allows the listener to connect the author with the city they see today. The use of a creative narrative which is listened to rather than read provides a format that’s easier to understand, removing some of the barriers created by large amounts of text.

3. Collaborating with creative partners

Working with creative partners such as artists and writers can help museums to reach new audiences, providing more approachable information for younger generations in particular. Graphic novels and comic books are incredibly helpful in this respect. I’m working with Wirksworth Heritage Centre’s writer in residence Helen Greetham, who’s currently producing a graphic novel about the literary heritage of George Eliot in Wirksworth.

A similar project is underway in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, working with young people to produce their own Lawrence-inspired graphic stories. The Eastwood Comics project aims to engage “700 further young people (who) will learn about the author and his birthplace by taking part in activities inspired by the young writers’ research”. Here, participation in creative projects and reading new stories help new generations to connect with Lawrence’s heritage in more meaningful ways than regurgitating information about the author.

The pandemic has provided an unprecedented challenge to the heritage sector, but the closure of our sites doesn’t mean we can’t continue to connect people to our history. These new and innovative ways that museums have engaged and inspired younger generations can continue regardless of whether physical buildings are open. In the months ahead, I hope more buildings take similar approaches.

Heather Green, PhD Candidate, Literary Heritage, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five tourist trips in England inspired by classic novels

Heather Green, Nottingham Trent University

Some books can really bring to life the place in which they’re set. Their words knit together in such a way that whole landscapes or entire floorplans of buildings you’ve never visited before spring forth in your mind.

Often these settings are based upon real places. So with domestic travel restrictions set to be relaxed from April, that might be the opportune moment to discover some of the UK’s best literary heritage sites. From violently beautiful windswept moors to boisterous town squares, here are five such places and the books they inspired:

1. Greenway, Devon in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly

Poirot commented on the geography of the property, ‘So many paths, and one is never sure where they lead’ … They passed the Folly and zig-zagged down the path to the river.

Agatha Christie’s house at Greenway on the River Dart is the setting for her 1956 novel Dead Man’s Folly. About a charity game of murder that becomes a bit too real, this Hercule Poirot mystery vividly came to life on my visit to Greenway.

Not only is the Georgian house itself perfectly depicted, but the zig-zagging path to the murder scene in the boathouse is so uncannily described that to visit it is chilling. The house and grounds are so evocative that Greenaway was used in ITV’s 2013 adaptation of the book.

2. Nottingham in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Market Square lights danced all around him.

Sillitoe’s cult novel set among the working class in Nottingham follows Arthur Seaton (rebel, thinker, drinker and womaniser) after he puts away 11 pints and seven gins one Saturday night.

Town sqyare with fountain, bordered by shops.
Nottingham’s Market Square. Destinos Espetaculares/Shutterstock

Nottingham might have changed somewhat since 1958, but Sillitoe’s detailed descriptions of the city’s streets are still wonderfully recognisable. Nothing says Nottingham like wondering amid the drunken revellers in Market Square or experiencing the cacophony of the annual Goose Fair, one of the largest funfairs in the UK. The many locations Seaton visited over his fateful weekend can be further explored on The Sillitoe Trail.

3. Wirksworth, Derbyshire in George Eliot’s Adam Bede

Look at the canals, an’ th’ acqueducs, an’ th’ coal-pit engines, and Arkwright’s mills there at Cromford.

George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859) provides a snapshot of the rural Midlands at the beginning of the 18th-century. Eliot’s aunt was a Methodist preacher in Wirksworth, and the local landscape, coupled with her aunt’s reminiscences, became the germ of the novel

Waterways at Arkwright's Mill, Cromford, Derbyshire.
Arkwright’s Mill, Cromford, Derbyshire. Daniel Matthams/Alamy

Thoough Eliot irritably rejected suggestions that any of her characters or settings were carbon copies of real life, Wirksworth can certainly be found in the industrial landscape that she conjures. Arkwright’s mills can be still be explored, the canal strolled along, and the remains of the mining industry discovered.

4. The West York Moors in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights

But it was one of their chief amusements to run away to the moors in the morning and remain there all day, and the after-punishment grew a mere thing to laugh at.

Wuthering Heights (1847) is a tale of obsessive love. Divided in life, Cathy and Heathcliff are finally joined in death and their spirits roam the Yorkshire moors. For me, Emily Brontë’s classic is more about the landscape than love. When first reading the novel, my interest in Cathy and Heathcliff’s undying love was secondary to my imaginings of the moorland that is their playground and escape. The windswept barren landscape feels synonymous with freedom.

Aeiral shot of the ruins of the Top Withins farmhouse
The ruins of the Top Withins farmhouse. Julian Hodgson/Shutterstock

You can walk in the Brontë sisters’ footsteps by following the Brontë Stones, which are situated between Thornton, where the girls were born, and Haworth, where they wrote their classic novels. The Emily Walk is marked by a poem carved into a rocky outcrop from Kate Bush, whose 1978 number one Wuthering Heights was inspired by the novel. The walk leads you away from civilisation and takes in the lovely ruins of Top Withins farmhouse, which is believed to be the inspiration for the Earnshaw home in Wuthering Heights.

5. Eastwood, Nottinghamshire in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers

The Bottoms consisted of six blocks of miners’ dwellings, two rows of three, like the dots on a blank-six domino, and twelve houses in a block.

Lawrence’s most autobiographical novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), follows the fates of a mining family in Nottinghamshire.

The once coal-mining town of Eastwood and the surrounding landscape has been recreated in detail gleaned from Lawrence’s memories of his childhood, from The Breach where his family lived (“The Bottoms” in the novel) to descriptions of the Moon and Stars pub (actually the Three Tuns). Visiting The DH Lawrence Birthplace Museum, visitors can step inside a typical mining family home of the period.

Heather Green, PhD Candidate, Literary Heritage, Nottingham Trent University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

DH Lawrence: Interpreting literary heritage through creative writing…

heather green

Over the past couple of years we have seen the DH Lawrence Heritage Centre at Durban House converted into a ‘beauty lounge‘ and the subsequent artefacts that comprised the museum are currently homeless. But not all is doom and gloom. Heather Green, a first year PhD student at Nottingham Trent University, is researching the potential of creative writing to interpret literary heritage and thereby engage with new audiences… 

It is often said that texts we consider to be “classics” within English Literature are considered so because they continue to resonate with each coming generation. My research explores how we present these classics within the museums and heritage sites devoted to their authors. Many literary heritage sites struggle to interpret their collections in a way that I feel is engaging enough to inspire new readers. The trouble, I suspect, is with the nature of literary collections: antiquarian books or archives can be displayed, but must be conserved. The easiest story to tell is often the life of the author; interesting in relation to ideas of inspiration, but not really the reason an author would be considered part of our literary heritage. If an author’s legacy is one of stories which stand the test of time, it is surely ideas and themes which you would expect to encounter at a museum devoted to them.

The exploration of Newstead Abbey, Byron’s ancestral seat in Nottinghamshire, was the first inspiration for my research into how literary heritage sites interpret their collections. In my opinion, although much of Newstead was engaging for those who were either already engaged with Byron’s works or simply interested in historic houses, not much was done to explore his legacy for those who were complete novices. This, I felt, was an aspect particularly missing for a younger audience – always a key audience for museums, but not a group ready to directly engage with Byron’s work. It was an ideal audience, however, to explore some of Byron’s heritage. I felt the difficulties of being born with a condition that made you different, the pain of standing out from the crowd and the embracing and exaggerating of individuality were ideal subjects for those younger visitors. But how to do it? How to make it engaging? Research suggests that fictional narrative is more engaging that the didactic, and as a method this seemed appropriate for sites dedicated to the written word.

The result of these musings was a PhD proposal, and a picture book entitled Mad, Bad and Dangerous Crow, which endeavoured (rather clunkily) to take ideas of Byron’s literary heritage and present them through a new piece of creative writing. The text was illustrated by Jonathan Green and printed as a one-off accompaniment to my MA research.

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In relation to Lawrence, I recently presented a paper proposing the use of creative practice to respond to Lawrence’s more controversial aspects. It should be noted that by controversial, I was not referring to the salacious and sexual content which causes such scandal on publication, but instead the elements which might raise eyebrows when reading Lawrence today. Lawrence remains difficult, because although so forward thinking in many ways, his writing can also be considered problematic. We are left with a dilemma when heralding him as – for example – a queer modernist writer, because his imagined relationship between Ursula and Miss Ingram in The Rainbow is short-lived, stereotypical and ultimately regretted. This aspects are thus often ignored (or skated over) in sites devoted to his heritage. I suggested that responding to these aspects through new creative fiction could address these issues without negating Lawrence’s impact.

My paper was theoretical, but there was substantial interest about taking the idea further from potential contributors.  Sean Richardson (an English literature PhD student at NTU) and myself are currently aiming to edit and produce an anthology of creative writing which would present various responses to Lawrence’s work; such as female responses to his portrayal of women, or a response by a queer writer to his portrayal of queerness. Our intention is to put out of call for contributions this summer, and perhaps the publication will inspire a cohort of new readers to delve into the unique wonders and frustrations of Lawrence’s works. If it does, I would consider it an effective contribution to Lawrence’s heritage.

Heather was recently commissioned to produce interpretation for children at Beeston Canalside Heritage Centre, which took the form of a children’s picture book. Dog and Duck’s Canal Adventure can be seen at the Canalside Heritage Centre itself and will be available to purchase as a picture book later this year. Heather is also a vital component of the final year English module ENGL30512, where she gives students critical feedback on their proposed designs for our digital ‘memory theatre’. 

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