12 December 2009

Story Museum Tells Half of the Story?

Fuse #8 offered a link to the Story Museum, devoted to Oxford, England’s rich tradition of children’s literature. The website calls the city “A world centre of language and learning, home to some of the best-loved children’s writers and illustrators in the world – from Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis to Philip Pullman.” A July 2009 handout from the museum also mentions Kenneth Grahame, who attended school at Oxford but wasn’t allowed by his guardian to go to the university.

Right now the Story Museum is its website, handouts, and school visits program, “taking lively storytelling performances, hands on exhibitions and creative activities to schools and family venues and offering training and resources for teachers and parents.”

On my first visit to England, I stayed with friends in Christ Church College at Oxford. And by that I mean I stayed in the college, with a view of Alice Liddell’s garden from the window above my bed. I was thrilled. So I appreciate the city’s heritage of children’s literature.

But right now the Story Museum gives short shrift to part of that heritage: the female side. Though the organization has many female supporters, its literature emphasizes the male, donnish aspect of British children’s literature and gives little attention to women’s historic contributions.

The museum website doesn’t mention Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Edith Nesbit, Enid Blyton, or Lucy M. Boston, as far as Google can tell. None has a strong Oxford connection, but of course as women they didn’t have the same university opportunities as their male contemporaries. (Similarly, I suspect that female dons at the women’s colleges in the mid-1900s would have suffered worse harm to their scholarly stature if they’d written children’s books than Tolkien and Lewis did.)

But what about female authors who did attend Oxford? Susan Cooper went to Somerville College and received an MA from the university; she was the first woman to edit the university’s newspaper. Diana Wynne Jones graduated from St. Anne’s College at Oxford. Their names don’t appear on the Story Museum website, either.

(I’m not bringing up women like Philippa Pearce of Cambridge or J. K. Rowling of Exeter. I understand how choosing to go to another university might be unforgivable.)


Monica Edinger said...

"But right now the Story Museum gives short shrift to part of that heritage: the female side."

Hmm, I think you are jumping the gun on this one. So far, I don't see them telling the history of children's literature around Oxford at all. I mean, I may not looking in the right places on their website, but I'm just not seeing a focus on authors, male or female. My impression is that they are focused on storytelling and working toward a children's museum featuring stories. The school offerings, for instance, are for myths and such, not particular authors and their stories.

And that July 2009 handout is not a general one for the museum, but a flyer for their Alice day which seems to have beautifully organized and must have been terrific. To fault the whole museum because the section on the history of Alice ends with a paragraph on how it started the modern age of children's literature and then a reference to children's authors most associated with Oxford seems a stretch to me.

J. L. Bell said...

The Story Museum has chosen a location in Oxford, and according to its own literature that’s not just because it’s an upscale university city that also functions as a bedroom community for West London. It’s because of the local children’s literature tradition, which will no doubt bring in tourists from elsewhere as well, including America.

The local tradition the museum is invoking, as far as its material reflects, consists almost entirely of Carroll, Tolkien, and Lewis, with Grahame as addendum and Pullman as modern-day representative. When the Guardian reported on the museum’s acquisition of a building in Oxford, based on interviews with its supporters, the article dropped Carroll’s name four times, Tolkien’s and Lewis’s names three times, and Grahame’s twice. Pullman got three mentions and a quote, with nearby authors Mary Hoffman and William Horwood each quoted once.

That’s a fine pantheon, but it reflects only part of the Oxford children’s literature tradition, and that tradition is only one slice of British children’s literature. If the museum’s ultimate focus is children’s storytelling as a whole, then the Oxford dons become an even smaller portion. Right now the museum website has several mentions of Tolkien and none of Mother Goose or Aesop.

(I mentioned the “Alice Day” pamphlet because it’s one of two items on the museum website that name Grahame, a children’s author who lived in the Oxford region. That brochure was actually an example of the museum reaching beyond the firm of Carroll, Tolkien, Lewis & Pullman—but of course it invokes all those names as well.)