Dickens Museum, a Dickensian treat – March 2016

When you are on the cusp of growing up, no longer a child but not quite an adult, dipping into a favourite television show can be an escape from the pressure of trying to understand your place in a confusing world. You can often have an emotional connection to a show that you won’t forget. I still fondly recall episodes of Quantum Leap that ran from 1989 to 1993, (I may also have had a crush on Scott Bakula).

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Dickens Museum – Doughty Street, London

My eldest daughter, 12 in a couple of weeks, is on this threshold, growing a little old for cartoons she is allowed up a little later than her siblings and is latching on to classic American sitcoms. ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ has been devoured, she has already moved on to ‘Frasier’. Her enthusiasm for the new and more grown-up is mirrored by her younger brother who has started school and left ‘CBeebies’ by the wayside. After 10-odd years of ‘In the Night Garden’, ‘Balamory’ and the ‘Teletubbies’ becoming the soundtrack to our domestic life, I am glad and yet strangely a little sad to say goodbye to the baby years.

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But it was with real delight that I shared my daughter’s complete obsession with the BBC series Dickensian this winter. Having just read ‘A Christmas Carol’ at school, Dickensian came at a perfect time for her, she was hooked. She would ring her Nanny each week to discuss the scandalous behaviour of Meriweather Compeyson, hoping for a happy outcome for Miss Havisham despite my delicate hints that all would not end well.

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Great way finding technique used in the museum

Dickensian was an introduction to the inner world of Dickens that could not have been more alive or real for her. Whilst some critics may have grumbled over the polluting of well read and loved story lines, for my daughter it was purely a dip into another world, fostering a love for Dickens that I have no doubt will follow her into adulthood.

2016-03-20 16.20.28.jpgIt is with this obsession in mind that I opted to take her to the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London, unencumbered by her younger siblings for a ‘Mummy – Daughter Day’. Dickens lived in Doughty Street for a mere two years from 1837 to 1839, the building once threatened with demolition was saved in 1923 by an independent trust. A £3 million refurbishment in 2012 has seen the museum extend to the house next door with tea room and disabled access improved. In Dickens’ short but productive time at Doughty Street he produced the Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist. Whilst I wondered if I would get a sense of the man in his former home. My daughter’s excitement was reaching fever pitch over their temporary exhibition featuring costumes, props, photography and design drawings from the Dickensian BBC television series.

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Closed due to costumed tour!

On the day I made the basic error of looking at the website but not too closely. The 3rd Sunday of the month being reserved for costumed tours, we arrived to find the museum closed. Luckily I got away with the disappointment with the distraction of lunch, and we returned refreshed for our 2nd attempt and successfully crossed the threshold.

Entrance price is £9 for adults and £4 for children between the ages of 6-16. I used my Museum Association membership card and luckily didn’t have to pay, to be honest it was a relief because my daughter consumed the museum in record time and I barely had a chance to catch up to her.

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Sir Leicester Dedlock costume from Bleak House

Costumes from Dickensian were spread from room to room, whilst my daughter was offered a children’s guide, paper, pencil and clipboard, she is really on the cusp of finding this type of engagement of interest. Perhaps it echoes too much of a school trip on a day off. But iPod in hand she rushed from room to room capturing each costume in photographs.

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To be honest I struggled to connect with the history of the man himself in the museum. Afterwards I read they have the world’s most comprehensive collection of material relating to the life and work of the 19th century novelist and have 100,000 objects, but I am not sure you get much sense of this. I understand that in the small rooms it can be hard to display the enormous wealth of the collection, but I needed more… ‘Dickens’. I kept thinking of Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields, now there is a house that oozes with the echoes of life and it is that crucial extra ‘something’ that I felt was missing as we moved from room to room.

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Miss Amelia Havisham’s dazzling purple costume

The one object that did catch my eye was the grill from the Marshalsea Prison, it felt weirdly out of place in the nursery attic room and yet it was the most emotive object we came across, instantly conjuring up images of Dickens’ characters struggling in a dark and dangerous world. Dickens’ own father was incarcerated in the debtors prison and it must have had a huge impact on the young writer who was only 12 at the time.

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Marshalsea Prison grill

I think my daughter felt a little disappointed with the final temporary exhibitions space where props, video and behind-the-scenes look at the set were displayed. To be fair to the museum she has been spoilt with a trip to Harry Potter World and I think she expected that same kind of experience, being able to walk the streets of the world she has inhabited each week.

It was a delight to see the surprise on her face when she heard the actors talking, stripped of their character accents these individuals she knew so well were rendered in some ways unrecognisable to her.

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It seems we barely arrived and we were on our way out the door. The world of Dickens real and imagined consumed in a flash. It would have been great to have some sort of app or digital ‘after care’ so she could place all her pictures in some sort of order with comments to share with others. She was desperate to see her Nanny afterwards to discuss Mrs Gamp’s hat and Mrs Bumble’s surprisingly pretty clothes.

Dickensian is a real draw for tv and Dickens fans to the museum. It shows how museums can successfully partner with tv tie-ins. They are becoming more common in the need to reach new audiences, I can think of Paddington and the Museum of London as another example.

Without the exhibition I am not sure what the experience would have been like. I would need to return to take my time, but the truth be told, with children in tow however grown up, museums are often consumed on the hoof. One letter did catch my eye in the Dickens’ hallway just past his front door, on a plain wall, and it is calling me to come back to read more. Sometimes it is the simplest curl of a downstroke and the swish of an upstroke, a writers life blood that can have the greatest impact of all.

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Dickensian exhibition is on at the Dickens Museum till Sunday 17 April 2016

For more information on the Dickens Museum including opening hours please see the website – http://dickensmuseum.com

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