A wardrobe of fur coats that children could touch and feel before entering “Narnia”; a giant bed big enough for 30 kids to lie on while they listened to a storyteller; a purpose-built studio for live performances. Bringing stories to life through interactive and hands-on experiences was at the core of Oxford’s new Story Museum.
After a two-year, £6m transformation, the new museum was due to be unveiled on 4 April, replacing a series of temporary exhibitions with permanent galleries designed to immerse visitors, especially young people, in a world of stories.
Then, Covid-19 struck and the UK went into lockdown. The opening weekend of festivities was cancelled and the museum remained shut.
“I can’t tell you how crushing it was to be poised [to open] and stopped in our tracks,” said museum director Caroline Jones.
But it wasn’t just disappointment at having to postpone the unveiling. Jones had to rethink the museum’s entire approach for Covid times. Out went the sensory activities: the cheesy props children were encouraged to sniff to transport them into Aesop’s fable of the fox and the crow; the chance to whisper their own stories to the trees. In came a guided, touch-free experience delivered at a distance for a vastly reduced number of visitors.
Now the museum is ready to open again. After a trial period in August and September when the ground floor only was open for three days a week, it is due to unveil all three of its floors for six days a week from Saturday 24 October. But with coronavirus restrictions tightening across the country, this will not be the end of the story.
Museums and galleries across the UK are under severe strain. Some of country’s highest-profile and most popular institutions – including the Tate, the V&A and the Southbank Centre – have announced job cuts; others are considering selling off artworks to avoid redundancies. In total, nearly 3,000 job losses have been announced so far, according to the Museums Association. In a separate study it found that extra spending on Covid by councils is putting the future of civic museums at risk. Some may never reopen.
Against this grim backdrop, Jones is proud that the Story Museum retained the 20 staff it had recruited in anticipation of its April re-opening.
“We did it at a personal cost – my colleagues and I reduced our contracts,” she said.
Jones also kept hold of grants that were awarded for educational and community projects, as well as raising additional emergency funds. However, the museum still needs to secure £200,000 before 31 March 2021, while operating at 20% capacity.
If the UK government decides on a second blanket lockdown, the museum could find its reopening delayed again, and be plunged further into financial difficulties, yet Jones remains determined to navigate a way through the crisis despite “the chaos, stress and uncertainty”.
“A national circuit-breaker is possible, but our entire approach has been about seeing what is possible. It’s never been more important to engage children in expansive, imaginative activity,” she said.
So, instead of whispering to the trees children wave a wand as they share their own stories. And the live show for an audience of 100 is being replaced by a performance “in promenade” for 25 visitors.
“It’s completely nuts to create a show for only 25 guests, but any little bubble of joy is worth pursuing. There’s something important about visualising where we can get to,” said Jones.