2016 is the year of the animal at Oxford’s Story Museum, a year-long celebration of animals in traditional tales, books and films. The centrepiece is Animal, an immersive exhibition that investigates the special appeal of animal stories for children, and what these teach us about ourselves and the natural world. Author and contributor to the exhibition Geraldine McCaughrean ventures in.
As the Story Museum in Oxford announces its new theme – Animal – visitors could be forgiven for thinking they are in for a day at a city farm. But the Museum has given it the subtitle A Safari through Story which promise something wilder. Naturally, the animals roaming the Pembroke Street enclosure are all pelt-plush with Story. They swish countless Tales behind them.
Prior to the launch, seven classes at one local school had each been listening to and learning seven traditional folk tales, myths and legends from one of seven world regions. A whole term was given over to loosing animals into every aspect of the curriculum. The Story Museum supplied them with the luxury of a professional storyteller, Cath Hogan, and the children responded with re-enactments, retellings and wall hangings. Tapestries inspired by the same stories now hang in the Story Museum, specially made by embroiderer Ally Baker who shared her skills with the school-children. I was asked to suggest all the stories I could for Cath to tell and Ally to illustrate, each one featuring a different species of bird, animal, insect or fish. It fell out rather handily, since I had just finished writing an anthology of animal stories for Oxford University Press’s forthcoming Greatest Stories project; my head was still aswarm with animals. Writing them had served to remind me how much I enjoy anthology work – also how much I miss my own primary school days when I spent a deal of time (secretly) being a horse.
Animals have been dragooned into education of all kinds over the centuries – cautionary life lessons (Aesop’s Fables), philosophical examples (The Blind Men and the Elephant), political satires (Reynard the Fox), Buddhist sermons (The Hare in the Moon), parables and propaganda. Stories served as currency in foreign parts. Some were written down by scholars, far more passed from storyteller to audience, parent to child. What they were not was the special preserve of children. The pity is that so many traditional stories have now been tamed, toned down and gelded, to make them ‘suitable’ for child readers. Both the children and the stories have lost out by it.
The joyful fact is that children are at ease with animals. Most have been ‘befriended’, from birth, by a succession of bears, rabbits, dogs, cats, ducks… The first time they identified with someone other than themselves, it was probably with their teddy bear. It is easy for children to imagine child-like thoughts are going on inside animal heads. They can appreciate an animal story even without picking up on its hidden meanings or motives – especially when it’s been well illustrated. But do let’s leave in something of those hidden meanings and motives, the strangeness, the fear, the life lessons, because, at some level they may be absorbed, and the story can retain its original potency.
The Story Museum has always provided well for younger children, with beds to curl up on, lullabies and rhymes, picture books and soft toys, twinkling low-lit peace… as well as opportunities to get messy. But it caters for older visitors, too. Its huge ‘top room’ is now given over to Animals in Fiction offering appealing encounters with characters such as Gromit and Shere Kahn, but also Varjak Paw, feline master of martial arts, the rabbits of Watership Down, and Art Spiegelman’s harrowing Maus – perhaps the graphic novel to establish the genre as a literary form. Represented, too, are such up-to-the minute works as Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder and Nicky Singer’s Island.
Talking of Island – a passionate protest against global warming – the ‘Animal’ theme naturally opens a path to ecological debate, as visitors immerse themselves in delectably atmospheric room-sets of various animal habitats – meadow, jungle, forest, town…
As usual there are plenty of dressing-up and craft activities available and the Talking Throne will be clearing its throat to address visitors. Those readers who have been on a few Pullman-class excursions with Lara and her daemon will have a chance to find out more about their own personal daemon.
As the Story Museum has demonstrated during these last couple of years, it can fill the calendar with original and varied events. Visiting speakers specifically addressing the ‘Animal’ theme during the next few months, will include Philip Pullman, Michael Morpurgo, Piers Torday and Katherine Rundell. As with the world’s wealth of
animal stories, the appeal is certainly not confined to young children.
The Museum recently received a further grant enabling it to continue, bit by bit, its development of the rambling, labyrinthine sorting offices it occupies. It is an acknowledgement of just how much has been achieved so far, and the promise of further wonders in store.
The Story Museum is open 10:00-17:00 on Saturdays and on Sundays 11:00-16:00.