C&TCF Tidbit #16: A Tale of Two Museums...Part 2

by Roald Dahl

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C&TCF Tidbit #16: A Tale of Two Museums...Part 2

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Thu Feb 17, 2005 9:24 am

Museum #2 is already open and going strong. The Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery

Where Marvellous Things Happen
David Erskine, Keeper of Educational Services at Buckinghamshire County Museum

Willy Wonka, the BFG and Fantastic Mr Fox are just some of the characters from Roald Dahl's much-loved children's stories that help to bring to life the collections at Buckinghamshire County Museum. The Roald Dahl Children's Gallery is an exciting hands-on museum that offers an imaginative and magical educational experience where children can learn through investigation and discovery.

The Roald Dahl Children's Gallery housed in an 18th century coach house opened on 23 November 1996 and is a major addition to Buckinghamshire County Museum. It is unique amongst children's museums in the way that it uses a famous author's stories to capture the imaginations of its visitors. Aimed mainly at children aged between 7 and 11 years the interactive displays encourage children to investigate history, natural history, science and technology through practical hands-on activities relating to real museum objects. Language, humour and Quentin Blake's wonderfully quirky drawings ensure that the spirit of Dahl's writing weaves its magic spell throughout the Gallery.

A Small Hut in the Garden

Roald Dahl lived for much of his working life in the village of Great Missenden near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire until his death in 1990. It was in a small hut in his garden that he wrote his much-loved children's stories. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr Fox and many more have delighted and captured the imaginations of children for over 30 years and are already modern classics.

The original idea for a children's gallery named after Roald Dahl came about after a generous donation from the late author's wife. A feasibility study was carried out by Lord Cultural Resources Planning and Management Inc. who put forward the concept of using Dahl's characters to introduce children to museum objects. School children and teachers were consulted and a pilot exhibition was also held to gauge the public's response to the project. The display brief was prepared by Museum staff in conjunction with a specialist museum design company, Bremner and Orr Design Consultants Ltd., who designed and constructed the exhibits. The use of Roald Dahl's characters immediately opened up the question of copyright. Since the project was educational and the building had a floor area of no more than 250 sq.m., the Dahl Estate was happy for the Museum to use Dahl's characters and themes as we were not in danger of creating a Dahl World. Likewise Quentin Blake kindly allowed us to use his illustrations, which perfectly complement Dahl's narrative and are now synonymous with his books. He also provided the illustrations for the Gallery logo.

The Spirit of Roald Dahl

What we did not want to do, however, was create any children's gallery and then decorate the walls with Quentin Blake's illustrations. Visitors would have high expectations of a gallery named after Roald Dahl, so it was important that it captured the spirit and flavour of his books. He never disappointed his readers and we did not want to disappoint our visitors. Equally, we needed to attract schools who had to find it relevant enough to the National Curriculum in order to justify a visit and hopefully to build it into their teaching programme.

When generating ideas for the Gallery we had three main objectives in mind: to introduce children to museum objects; to provide hands-on experiences and to celebrate the stories of Roald Dahl. It was important throughout the project to keep reminding ourselves of these objectives as it was all too easy to stray into the realms of complete fantasy and frivolity. Although, it is always healthy to generate ludicrous ideas as they can later be reined back to reality.

We had three possible starting points from which to generate ideas and satisfy our objectives. They were: the Museum's collections; the National Curriculum or Roald Dahl's books. We chose to start with Dahl's books as he was himself fascinated by the world around him and his books are full of references to natural history, science and technology.

The themes that were eventually chosen for the exhibits were then those that best used the Museum's collections and had links to the National Curriculum. Equally important were three key words: imagination, wordplay and humour. Roald Dahl loved playing with language and making children laugh so these elements influenced all aspects of the displays; from eyeballs in seats to the unexpected and often humorous mix of objects in the displays.

Like an Enormous Pop-up Book

The Gallery is divided into four main areas as defined by the layout of the coach house which is on two levels with adjoining cottages.
The entrance of the Gallery is like walking into an enormous pop-up book. A curving staircase sweeps around a cascade of suspended objects. Below, is a stepped seating area where school groups are welcomed, and above, a birdcage and toilet seat are being hurled out of the open window of a gigantic book illustration. Mr Willy Wonka invites you to ride in the Great Glass Elevator.

In the Discovery Gallery on the ground floor five exciting areas each introduce a theme based on one of Dahl's books. Here you can: encounter the world of minibeasts inside the Giant Peach, discover life underground as you crawl along Fantastic Mr Fox's tunnel, dress up in Victorian school clothes under the watchful eye of Miss Trunchbull, explore sound with the BFG or investigate inventions with Willy Wonka, the greatest inventor of them all.

Boggle Your Eyes and Baffle Your Brain

Upstairs in the Imagination Gallery exhibits have been designed to boggle the eyes and baffle the brain. You can draw with light on the magic writing wall, create weird and wonderful shadows from objects or even appear in your own drawings. Dahl stretches the imaginations of his readers by playing with their perceptions of reality. In Dahl's world things are turned upside-down, people can grow and shrink and things are not always what they seem. Even the handle to the door of the Imagination Gallery is a copy of one of Dahl's prosthetic hips.
The final area, Matilda's Library, is an inviting room full of books where you can discover more about Dahl's life and work. You can pick up an earpiece and listen to one of his stories, watch a video or dip into your favourite Dahl book.

The Strength of a Rhinoceros

The general approach to the displays is a combination of objects in cases from the Museum's collections, handling objects and associated hand-on exhibits. Provenanced material is protected but instead of traditional display cases, cases double up as activity benches or are dressed to fit into the Dahl environment, such as a giant suitcase or part of the centipede's body. Objects are displayed at all levels so that viewing requires visitors to get down on hands and knees or look above their heads. There are also large set pieces which help to create a complete environment, such as the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr Fox's tunnel and the Twits' upside-down room.

The exhibits are generally low-tech so most maintenance can be done in-house. As far as possible easily available components have been used so that worn parts can be quickly replaced. This reduces the amount of time any exhibit is out of action, essential in a gallery of this size. An eight-year-old child seems to have the strength of a rhinoceros and even cleverly engineered and hisly expensive exhibits will sooner or later succumb.

What Marvellous Things Happen to the National Curriculum

School groups have exclusive use of the Gallery and can book a 90 minute teaching session led by two Education Assistants. Many teachers visit because they are doing a classroom topic based on one of Dahl's books. Sessions can also be geared to a teacher's particular topic needs, e.g. Minibeasts, underground, inventions, sound or light. Teachers particularly like the imaginative and lively approach to the National Curriculum and special sessions are being developed to make stronger links with the National Literacy Strategy

The Gallery can be enjoyed on many levels by different age groups and the rich variety of activities has prevented any one area becoming a honey pot. There are, of course, exhibits that are more popular and these tend to be those that are physical or involve an enclosed space, such as, crawling through a tunnel, freezing your own shadow or appearing in your own drawing. However, the things that work best are often the simplest and cheapest, such as, dressing up and the ever popular feely holes! All the exhibits have the potential of being enhanced by the team of Explainers who are on hand to interact with visitors during public opening hours.

The Gallery has a capacity of only 85 people at a time, but its popularity is enormous. Devising the best method of controlling numbers at peak times has always been a priority while at the same time maintaining the quality and enjoyment of the visit. Timed tickets are issued where visitors have a hone-hour visit that starts on the hour. Some tickets are pre-bookable for those coming a distance.

The total cost of the project was £620,000 and financial support has some from the Dahl family, the County Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, charitable trusts and sponsors.

The Gallery has become one of the most popular visitor attractions in the area, attracting visitors from all over the country and from around the world. As one parent commented, the Roald Dahl Children's Gallery is not just for children but the child in us all. But perhaps the message behind the Gallery is best summed up by the last words that Roald
Dahl wrote:

"And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who do not believe in magic will never find it."

To visit the The Roald Dahl Children’s Gallery online:


The Roald Dahl Children's Gallery
Buckinghamshire County Museum
Church Street, Aylesbury, UK, HP20 2QP
Tel: 01296 331441
Fax: 01296 334884
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -
Wow! What a ride!

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Unread postby es » Thu Feb 17, 2005 11:50 am

thats sounds like a great museum for kids,i like it that the museums are trying to connect with kids so that they will develep an intrest in art and science.
unfortuanatly this one is a bit out of the way for us,greetings,

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Unread postby suec » Thu Feb 17, 2005 3:15 pm

OK, now I want to take some kids I know, at some point. I think they would love it. I also like the child in all of us comment. Another of those recurring themes.
"Luck... inspiration... both only really happen to you when you empty your heart of ambition, purpose, and plan; when you give yourself, completely, to the golden, fate-filled moment."

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