Animal - A Safari Through Stories

Interactive exhibition for families about animals in storytelling. Listen, explore, read, play and journey to all the continents and through time following animal heroes of children's literature.
The Story Museum, Pembroke Street, Oxford OX1 1BP, Sat 13 February - Thu 31 March 2016

February 12, 2016
Meet a mythical menagerie in this well-thought out exhibition for families

The Story Museum were in the very final stages of setting up their new exhibition, Animal - A Safari Through Stories, when they let us in for a sneak preview this week. Normally museums allow a good 6 months to a year to mount a new exhibition, particularly one as interactive as this. But this time the Story Museum are defying convention. They were so keen to open for February half term, and give families another option for something fun to do in the warm, that they've set up in under 4 months. It will be ready, but there are still some painters working round the clock up step ladders to get there!

In fact the Story Museum seem to defy convention in most ways - staff say they think of it more like an art gallery, but to me it feels more like a stage set. Maybe it's the building itself, labyrinthine and a wonderful mix of functional décor from its former days as a telephone exchange, mixed with grand doorways upcycled from university chapels. Round one corner I came face to face with Merlin's lair.

Animals feature in an enormous range of tales, and the exhibition starts with stories from around the world. On the walls are a gorgeous and very tactile series of textile wall hangings, each depicting animals from a different continent. You can hear the stories about each animal read by either a professional storyteller or children from St Ebbe's.

Threading your way upstairs you enter a transitional space looking at the first written tales, including those by "Jewish Aesop" Berechiah, who lived in Oxford (possibly within 100 yards of the museum, as St Aldates was the centre of the medieval Jewish quarter). Lots of moralistic tales involve foxes, some good some bad. Here a Fox Abacus gives you the chance to swipe some fictional foxes right or left, according to whether you like them or not!

Most of the top floor is divided into nooks and crannies like alcoves in a library, and in each you can inhabit a moment of a story. Some most people will have heard of - Northern Lights, The Jungle Book, and Watership Down, for instance. Some are less well known, including The River Singers (a new story about Water Voles, written by a zoologist and exploring a very naturalistic approach to writing), and The Last Wild - a very odd story about a boy in a futuristic jail and a talking cockroach. But they are all carefully chosen to explore particular themes like the focus on ecology in modern animal stories, or look at story structure, so the War Horse stable investigates pivotal moments in the plot.

There's lo-fi and hi tech - from sound effects in a vole burrow, the Northern Lights and photosensitive paint to the humble but indispensable piece of plastic drainpipe which will be your constant companion through upper reaches, with a myriad of uses. In short, the curators have been mindful of what works, what is intrusive, what breaks, and they use tech sparingly but thoughtfully where it makes a real impact. They know their target audience, so everything is robust and you are allowed, in fact encouraged, to touch and interact with things.

There are lots and lots of tie-in activities, especially in half-term and the Easter holidays - meeting authors, animation and writing workshops, storytelling yoga, musical and sensory activities, a magic show, and special Access sessions for anyone with a disability. As well as authors, the museum plays host to Science Oxford and Aardman animators.

As an adult you might feel, as I did, that the Story Museum isn't really meant for you. But I would strongly recommend a trip for anyone of any age who values imagination, creativity, and the power of stories. I think it might be more fun with a child, seeing them learning what fun books can be, at the start of their literary journey. But I also think most of the adults get as much out of the trip as the kids. At the very least there's a giant bed for a snooze, and a cafe run by Sophie Grigson!

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