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.

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

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’. 

FURTHER READING