by Annabel Jackson
When tourists visit Oxford, I often see them queue outside the pillared halls of the Ashmolean, or gather near the archway entrance to the Pitt Rivers. But down a side street near Christ Church College — that other big tourist hotspot — is a museum that is truly one of a kind.
It was developed in a run-down building in the city centre. Now, with the addition of swirling staircases and sky-painted buildings, Oxford’s Story Museum has a charming DIY feel — experimental, home-grown, and full of love for the project at hand.
The Museum is the brainchild of its founder, Kim Pickin. Back in 2003, Kim was raising her three children and seeing ‘first-hand how much they were learning through stories. The more we chatted about them, the more it seemed to help them discover the world and piece their own brains together.’ From this personal experience, the ground-breaking idea for a museum of stories was born: a place where stories from all different media could be read, experienced, and celebrated. As a booklover since childhood, the ingenuity behind this place’s dynamic, unconventional structure really spoke to me.
The emphasis here is on the experience: the Story Museum shatters the ‘look, don’t touch’ rule of more traditional museums. Everything is up for handling, touching, grabbing (in a covid-safe way). Armed with an audio headset and a ‘wand’ that lets you engage with its many interactive objects, you first enter The Whispering Wood. Decorated to the hilt with green netting, vine leaves, and emerald lighting, it’s a floor dedicated to an immersive oral storytelling experience. An object is burrowed into each ‘tree trunk’ awaiting discovery, as the story behind it is animatedly recounted in the headset. I was as enchanted by its beguiling atmosphere as an adult as I would have been as a small child. It’s part museum, part experimental theatre, and entirely bewitching.
From the get-go, the Museum’s focus on immersion was at the fore. At first displaying pop-up exhibitions and organising programmes in local schools, the Museum really found its footing in 2009 — the year Kim and her team transformed the dilapidated building and ex-post office into one of the most innovative spaces in Oxford today. ‘We gradually colonised different bits of the building, experimenting with the immersive aspects, which were going down very well.’
Creating the Story Museum was a passion project from the beginning — Kim was developing it alongside her day job for five years before she could commit full time — yet those early years also saw this passion backed up with rigorous research. ‘I discovered very quickly how stories could inspire learning, and that gradually morphs into enriching lives.’ Improving literacy is a crucial aim of the Museum, but it’s only half the battle. ‘We discovered that stories can also help with wellbeing and togetherness. They develop your understanding of the world and your empathy for others.’
‘Togetherness’ is certainly something the Museum has achieved in the way it unites members of the community. The families who come back again and again over the summer holidays, the myriad local artists and art directors who Kim collaborated with to renovate the space, and even the future researchers who, Kim says, will one day see the Museum as a cultural barometer for the times. Of the 1001 stories ‘collected’ by the Museum, 600 are on display — favourites from my own childhood, like Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, are given the spotlight. However, ‘this isn’t a fixed canon,’ Kim explains. Deciding which stories to exhibit is part of an ‘ongoing public consultation. Demoted stories will go into the archive, and, as the years go by, people will be able to see how stories go in and out of fashion, or how some ideas in them become irrelevant or unacceptable.’ The Museum is there to forge connections not only between communities of the here and now, but also between past and present, between the stories that glimmer with possibility already and the ones that will do so in the future.
In guiding children out of the latest covid-19 lockdown, the Museum is looking towards the future in its exhibitions, too. The next one is inspired by The Book of Hopes, a collection of stories compiled during the pandemic that looks at children’s future aspirations. But for now, Kim is also looking back. ‘It’s about 21 years since I first thought of the Story Museum, so it feels like it has come of age,’ she laughs. ‘It’s doing wonderful things,’ Kim adds — not least being the kind of enriching little place Bimble loves to support. Now Kim has stepped down from the Museum’s day-to-day running and can watch it blossom from a distance, finally ‘feeling like a very proud parent.’