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.

How to celebrate heritage when your subject is ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’

In November 2020 I gave a talk to the London Group of the D.H. Lawrence Society about progress of the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. This is a project that Paul Fillingham and I have been working on for five years or so now. But the main purpose of the talk was to discuss the best way to celebrate heritage. This is a subject I’m very passionate about. Here’s a couple of examples of how it can go horribly wrong.

Culture imposed from above

Culture that’s imposed from above can cause antagonism and resentment. An example of this would be a sculpture plonked into a community with little consultation or awareness of those left to gawp at it every day. Instead of inspiring individuals, it becomes a totem of discontent: ‘the money would have been better spent cleaning up graffiti’; ‘they could have built a playpark for kids’, etc. An example of this is Jean-Pierre Raynaud’s Dialogue with History (1987) which attempted to commemorate the arrival of French settlers to Canada through a series of white cubes but looked like a Rubik’s Cube with the colour stickers peeled off. Nicknamed the toilet, it was criticized for failing to fit in with its 18th century surroundings. It was flattened in 2015.

Vanity projects for the artist

Some heritage is so divisive that discussions focus on the artist rather than the subject. An example of this is Maggi Hambling’s naked statue of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). It is appalling. Can you imagine someone commissioning a naked statue of Winston Churchill or Oliver Cromwell? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen. Hambling argued that her Silver Surfer statue wasn’t meant to represent Wollstonecraft, rather it’s for her. “Clothes define people,” she said, “As she’s Everywoman, I’m not defining her in any particular clothes.” But she’s not everywoman. She is slender, well- toned and perfectly formed. She is drawn from the male gaze, reinforcing the perfect body types that have oppressed women for decades. In terms of arousing public disgust, it is more offensive than Vasile Gorduz’s naked monument to Romania’s stray dogs, which is quite a feat…

The same old same old

Blue plaques and statues are great for selfies but rarely serve their purpose –capturing the spirit or essence of the person they claim to be celebrating. There is also a danger of over celebrating the life of a famous individual, and this is a problem I have with D.H. Lawrence’s birthplace of Eastwood.

Eastwood is in danger of becoming a Disney Park to Lawrence. Café’s, the Rainbow bus line, the Phoenix snooker hall, the local Wetherspoon, all bear some relation to his life and work. Some of this is done well, others not so. It must be suffocating for the locals to be constantly reminded of the man who couldn’t wait to get away from the place they are all stuck in during lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we are celebrating our literary heritage and the Midlands should definitely aim for an equivalent of Bronte country or Hardy’s Wessex. But I just don’t think another statue will do it– the idea banded about by each new incoming Broxtowe MP. I explained why in a recent talk via Zoom to the London branch of the D.H. Lawrence Society.

Literary heritage requires imagination. D.H. Lawrence was a writer who was, according to Geoff Dyer, ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’. He never settled in one place for more than two years and never owned any property. Despite this, heritage determines we render him static in perpetuity. If we are to celebrate Lawrence’s life, we need the form to reflect the content. We need something mobile, not static. This is the rationale behind the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It is a moveseum if you will; a travelling art exhibition modelled on Lawrence’s personal travel trunk, that curates Lawrence’s life through artefacts. It will retrace Lawrence’s steps across Europe and beyond, if and when we ever send Covid packing…

This project is not imposed from above but from within. It is a conversation. We want to create a space for many voices to think through the life of this contradictory and complex character. One artefact I want to include in the memory theatre is rage and so the talk helped generate reasons for Lawrence’s rage as well as ways that we can represent this as an artefact. You can read more about the talk in Catherine Brown’s review here.

Further Reading