Q&A with Caroline Jones

Robert Picheta, 01.08.2018
Oxford's Story Museum is rewriting its future with an ambitious expansion
Almost a decade after it opened, the Story Museum in Oxford is planning a major expansion and was awarded just over £1m by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) last month. Museums Journal spoke to the museum's co-director Caroline Jones about its plans for redevelopment.

Why was the Story Museum set up in Oxford in 2009?

The Story Museum is rooted in the knowledge that stories have the power to enrich lives, particularly young lives. Our visionary founder Kim Pickin and the first trustees she assembled around her felt strongly that the world needed a place to celebrate and conserve stories in all their forms; as the publisher David Fickling said: "Children's story has many travelling preachers. It needs a cathedral."

Where better to create such a place than in Oxford, a city where so many stories have begun? Oxford also presents some of the highest levels of illiteracy and multiple disadvantage in the country, and is somewhere the Story Museum can have a particularly significant and positive impact. We found the perfect location in a set of dilapidated and unoccupied buildings with their own civic history stretching back over 700 years.

How has the museum developed since then?

During the first four years of operating in our part-made state, the Story Museum has welcomed more than 160,000 people. We have worked with artists to present 10 imaginative and immersive temporary exhibitions, some running for several weeks and some for years. Our Animal exhibition was a story safari through literature for older children, while Time for Bed featured a giant bed with room enough for families and large groups to listen to classic stories.

A rolling programme of regular activities, interactive workshops, skills-development courses, talks and performances allows us to feature even more stories and story-makers, as well as targeting particular audiences with suitable content. We work directly with early years and school groups, on both an open-access and targeted basis, using stories to develop language, literacy and creativity, and eventually, give children the independent motivation to read and write their own futures.

Alongside our public offer, we have delivered further discrete phases of capital work to improve the site's accessibility and environmental performance. This allowed us to colonise more of our rough spaces with new exhibitions, sometimes making a virtue of their dilapidation: our snow-laden Narnia installation, entered through a wardrobe of fur coats, was convincingly cold thanks to uninsulated and ever so slightly-holey walls.

And all the while, we have been working towards chapter two: developing our plans and fundraising for the next and largest phase of capital work, which will bring the museum into full and sustainable operation by 2020.

What are your redevelopment plans?

With a properly conceived and fit-for-purpose design, full accessibility and improved operations, the refurbished museum will have the capacity to nearly triple our current annual visitor participant numbers. The project will deliver 10 gallery and activity spaces and a transformed public offer, including five new semi-permanent exhibitions, a theatre and a learning space, all wrapped around an outdoor courtyard.

Visitors will go on a journey through the story of story, starting with its oral traditions 3,000 years ago, via the golden age of children's literature on page and later onstage, up to contemporary digital narratives in films and gaming.

As with most major capital projects there have been teeth-grinding frustrations and Cheshire-cat grins in equal measure, but we find ourselves on the brink of construction work this autumn, subject to a teensy bit more money (£150,000 if anyone's feeling generous) and the usual funder permissions.

Building work is expected to take 15 months, including the exhibition fit-out, testing and a soft opening, followed by a formal opening in early 2020. The total project cost of around £5.6m will be met with fundraised income. As of July 2018, our campaign stands at £4.9m (87%).

How will the new museum be run?

On a heady mix of love and subsidy, of course! The redeveloped Story Museum will be open to all visitors for six days a week throughout the year; we have been only open to school groups during term-time and the public through weekends and school holidays, so this represents a significant increase in visitor numbers. Accordingly, we'll increase our FTE staff by 50% and nearly double our headcount across a sustainable mix of full-time, part-time and casual contracts.

We will continue to rely on volunteers - a brilliantly active and supportive pool of around 100 local people of all ages and backgrounds - and will need to triple their numbers to meet the operational needs of the museum. All those exciting interactive spaces will benefit hugely from having knowledgeable and engaging volunteers ready to welcome visitors, particularly those who are not used to accessing cultural experiences.

What are some of the highlights from your collection?

Whereas many museums grow from a collection, the Story Museum grew from a vision of enriching lives, particularly young lives, through story. To help guide this process, we have developed our 1001 Stories Framework - a dynamic approach that enables us to evolve our collection to ensure it continues to include contemporary work and reflect our diverse audiences. To earn a place in the framework, stories must be considered by our selection team (which includes consulted children and families) to be "great" in their own right. They must meet a number of criteria, including the story's universal appeal, its potential to engage audiences and its persistence through time and cultures.

Titles we have confirmed for our first 1001 selection include the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Horrid Henry, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh and Wallace and Gromit, all of which will feature prominently in future semi-permanent exhibitions.

We present stories in both intangible and tangible forms, as well as the objects and knowledge associated with them and their creators. Collection highlights to date include a single collection of 500 Alice in Wonderland books from various countries, a stained glass window from the study of the late author Richard Adams, and a specially-commissioned Time for Bed mural by the author and illustrator Helen Cooper.


The original article stated that the Story Museum had been awarded £3m by the HLF. This has been amended.