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Explore Roald Dahl’s writing hut at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

Explore Roald Dahl’s writing hut at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

15 March 2012 Katie Moritz

'We get letters from children saying, 'Dear Roald Dahl, sorry you're dead' or 'I wish you weren't dead' or others not even knowing that he is, because when you read his books as a child, even now, they still feel incredibly contemporary.'

I visited the wonderful Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre as the fiery golds of autumn were scorching the leaves of the trees in the little village of Great Missenden. The museum truly is small, but beautifully formed. I was transported straight back to childhood and the rich memories of my favourite Roald Dahl books. I loved the attention to detail, the delightful exhibits to play with, the actual smell of chocolate coming seemingly out of the walls, the nostalgic treats in the gift store and the deliciously tasty café, full of food inspired by the stories. The museum has revamped their Solo gallery to tell the story of Roald Dahl’s life, with his beloved story hut as the star attraction, framing his life. I returned to talk to Amelia Foster, the museum director, about how they brought this icon into the museum safely. What a story!
 
London Calling: Amelia, tell us the story about the new Solo gallery and Roald Dahl’s writing hut. How did it come to life?
Amelia Foster: Well, Felicity Dahl, Roald's widow, was concerned about the state of the writing hut. It had been left untouched since he died. It’s such an important and unique cultural icon that we thought we really ought to do something about it, and clearly to preserve it in situ wasn't an option. So the idea came about to move it into the gallery, so many more of Roald Dahl's fans could actually see the place that he wrote in. It’s a really interesting and quirky place in which he surrounded himself with his mementos and strange things, which somehow spoke to him. We’d been thinking about redeveloping one of our galleries anyway - we've been open for five years and it's good to keep things fresh.

We went to see Francis Bacon’s studio in the Hugh Lane gallery in Dublin. That was moved from London to Dublin! It's a much bigger space but they'd done an amazing archaeological re-creation of it and it inspired us to think we might be able to do the same. We went out to tender and found some museum designers who excited us and had a good vision for what we were trying to achieve and then we put it into motion.

We had someone to do the conservation work to catalogue, to map and make recommendations about what needed to be done. Everything was mapped and then all the objects were demounted for conservation work. The armchair, the sleeping bag and the rug all had to be frozen.  Paper went off to paper conservators and things that might have had pests were sent off to the Horniman Museum to be frozen for a couple of weeks! Meanwhile, the gallery was being refurbished and the external structure of the hut was being built in the gallery. Over the Christmas period everything was put back in - it was a very painstaking job. In fact, even the dirt has been brought down here. That was gently baked in the oven to make sure there were no pests and then redistributed around the hut in the right way!
 
Stephen, the conservator, was working from a huge amount of evidence that he'd gathered - documents and photographs and so on - so that it looked as perfect as possible, even down to the wiring. Everything went back in the exact right places.
 
 
LC: Tell us about the company you worked with to create the experience? How did you come up with the ideas together?
AF: Outside Studios - we were excited by their vision. We worked very, very closely together with them. We did some workshops with all the staff. Then the archivist and I worked together to see how we could best deliver what the visitors of the museum wanted.
 
We've got a lot of feedback over the years from customers about what they would like to see in the galleries, but also, from our perspective, we wanted the hut to be the star of the show. The gallery is called ‘Solo’ and we wanted to re-tell the story of Going Solo, but add more depth and make sure that we’re covering all of our visitors. Although we say our target age range is six to twelve and their families, actually we sell a huge number of full price adult tickets. So, there's lots of reading in the gallery, but there's also a lot of visual things, a lot of interactive things; there are little peepholes and things to open if you're two - or 32! We hope there are enough things to cater for the very diverse range of ages that we get here.
 
 
LC: For somebody thinking of visiting the museum for the first time, how would you describe what their day would be like?
AF: A visit takes around an hour and a half but, in fact, many stay for four or five hours. We are a small museum looking at Roald Dahl's life and we're unique in that we have his very complete archive - that's very rare. We own the first manuscript of Matilda, for example, where she was actually wicked and Miss Honey was a compulsive gambler and Matilda dies at the end! You can come and unlock the stories behind the stories. We look at how Roald Dahl's life shaped him as a writer and, in doing that; we hope we will inspire other people to be writers. We show how he drew inspiration from everything that happened to him, even though he actually hated being asked how he got his ideas.
 
In our final gallery, The Story Centre, we put the visitor's imagination centre stage - manipulating plot, character and language and giving you some creative writing techniques. We describe it as creative writing by stealth, because kids come here and they don't know that that's what they're doing. As every child who comes gets a story ideas book, like Roald Dahl had, we hope they will go away with some ideas for stories.

We have a crafts room so you can get gluey and messy and do some colouring, and we hope the adults might do that as well! We have a workshop programme that offers extra bookable activities involving things like storytellers, authors, musicians and crafts people.

You can come and do Roald Dahl's village trail and see the places that inspired the books. For example, we have the petrol pumps that inspired Danny, we have Matilda's library, Sophie's orphanage - you can see all that as you walk around the village. Roald was very deeply rooted in this countryside and you really feel that when you come here. And if you're feeling really adventurous, we have a countryside walk which is a leaflet with distances and times and takes you up into Fantastic Mr. Fox's woods.
 
 
LC: And you have a rather delicious Café…
AF: Of course, we have the wonderful Cafe Twit, which sells amazing cakes and good, sensible, well-price food that hopefully children want to eat. And you can sit in our sunny courtyard and eat it.
 
 
LC: What do you think about all the recent adaptations of Roald Dahl’s work, like Matilda, Fantastic Mr Fox and Twisted Tales at the Lyric Hammersmith?
AF: We think it's fantastic that there are so many different iterations of Roald Dahl's work and that people still really love it. People send us writing or images that they have created, inspired by Roald Dahl. It’s really exciting that people feel even now, a long time after he died, that he’s still a really current author. We get letters from children saying, 'Dear Roald Dahl, sorry you're dead' or 'I wish you weren't dead' or others not even knowing that he is, because when you read his books as a child, even now, they still feel incredibly contemporary.
 
I went to see Matilda at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and I thought it was absolutely amazing. And we were very lucky, we got to see behind the scenes as they were making Fantastic Mr. Fox and got to go to the premiere too, so that was really exciting. We got to meet George Clooney and Bill Murray. That was really wonderful.
 
 
LC: How do you think Roald Dahl sits alongside J.K. Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson and other current day children’s authors?
AF: I think Roald Dahl was a trailblazer - when he wrote there wasn't anyone who was really writing in the way that he did. He really changed the face of children's literature and made it much more acceptable to write books that children really wanted to read.
 
I think some people say it's a golden age of literature now, but Roald Dahl is absolutely up there. If you go into any school in this country, there isn't a child who hasn't heard of Roald Dahl.

He's a very different writer to Jacqueline Wilson or J.K Rowling, but he's much loved and part of our cultural frame of reference in this country. He’s translated into over 50 languages so he’s part of the world's culture, too. Barely a day goes by where you don't hear a reference to an Oompa Loompa, or a golden ticket.
 
 
LC: How would you describe a typical day at the museum and what’s your favourite book?
AF: Well, there's no such thing as a typical day at the Roald Dahl museum! It's never boring, there's always something interesting happening. For instance, we're working on a project with the families of prisoners in a high security prison at the moment. We're not 'museum-y' - we don't expect people to be quiet and reverent; we want them to have fun and run around and shout. It’s great to hear children enjoying themselves - that's the biggest bonus.
 
My favourite book is the BFG and when I came here I found out that it was Roald Dahl's favourite of his own books, too.
 
 
LC: What’s coming up next for the museum and anything else you’d like to add?
AF: We're developing an exciting new website and we hope to have some content on there that people who can't visit, for whatever reason, will be able to enjoy and experience. Our big new thing is our fantastic new gallery, which we're really, really excited about. We hope people will come and see it.
 
We've got a big summer, packed with lots of activities for the 2012 games. Roald Dahl was actually quite a keen sportsman himself - and quite a talented one - so we'll be doing some sports-related activities.
 
We’re only 45 minutes from London on the train via Chiltern railways and it's a lovely journey through the countryside. We're open pretty much every day, except Mondays (we are open on occasional Mondays, just check our website). We really love welcoming people who are interested in Roald Dahl or just interested in having fun.
 
You can go and explore the Solo Gallery, the hut and whole museum for yourself – the gallery is officially open from the 20th March.
 
Portrait of Roald Dahl credited to Jan Baldwin

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