Wednesday, September 22, 2010


A couple of years ago I subscribed to a home exchange website, and this summer I took the plunge. I linked three exchanges, staying in 1) a 15th century Norman farmhouse; 2) a spacious house in west London; and 3) an urban cottage in Cardiff. To justify my self-indulgence, I researched my current INK blog throughout the trip. Actually, that’s not a fib. As I toured the French countryside for ten days and London for six weeks, I monitored old and new ways museums, castles, etc. are presenting history to visitors, and how that might relate to us nonfiction authors.


The Castle of William the Conqueror in Falaise, France is a restored stone heap with enormous empty rooms, until you enter them with your electronic devise. Then they are transformed with medieval music, spoken narrative and poetry, and photos projected on walls and floor. Suddenly you are in a hall where “tapestries” line the walls, a “carpet” covers the floor, and courtly love poems set to music for the Duchess by her faithful knight, echo in your ear.

You enter a medieval chapel to hear haunting plainsong and a story of a conflict between Duke and Pope, taken from letters and papal decrees. The cold stone walls have come to life. Guidebook texts, even read by a narrator, don’t produce the same sense of time travel back to the age when the tapestries, carpets, and music were not electronically created. (Please excuse my inferior photograph. For a better view, see, Photos #14-17.)


Much more modest is the Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street, Charing Cross, London. Franklin lived here for nearly twenty years, while he was a colonial lobbyist to Parliament. The small, narrow terrace house has few furnishings and, presumably, a small budget. We meet a real-life actress playing the landlady’s daughter, who tells us tales of Franklin’s London life: meeting renowned scientists and politicians, inventing the glass armonica, writing a witty “Craven Street Gazette” to his absent landlady, and paving the road to the American Revolution. Video images and narrative voices bring Franklin and his friends into the room.


My top prize for “bringing history to life” goes to
The Enchanted Palace at London’s Kensington Palace. A many-roomed installation by Wildworks, a group of Cornwall artist and performers, creates an atmosphere that mixes historical settings and biography with contemporary artworks that reflect the lives of seven princesses who lived in the palace over the last 350 years, from Princess Mary (1662-94) to Princess Diana.

In “The Room of Royal Sorrows” we see an elegant bed and learn of Princess Mary, married to her first cousin at fifteen, suffering three miscarriages in that bed, then dying there of smallpox at age thirty-two. A river of fabric shimmering with “tears” flows over the bed; and a table of antique glass bottles shows how tears of joy were collected and stoppered, and tears of sorrow collected and allowed to evaporate (along with the sorrow.) We are asked to write about the last time we cried, and to attach our note to a string of others’ sorrows. Art illuminating history.

We meet Princess Caroline, patron of philosophers and scientists, in The Room of Enlightenment, along with fantastical contemporary mobiles inspired by her interests. Each princess is given poetry, artworks, and a living Explainer who is well-versed in her history. Some room even have Detectors, actors “in history” who engage visitors in the past. This exhibit continues through 2012, so don’t miss it if you’re in London.


History told through story…. I visited the Big Pit Mining Museum in Blaenafon, Wales and descended 300 ft. to walk half a mile through a coal mine and listen to our guide, a Welsh miner who went “down the mines” at age sixteen, until he lost his job in the 1980s closures. We learned about coal mining, along with his personal stories.

The Original London Walks have been favorites of mine for years. I went on several this summer, featuring the 2012 Olympics, Fleet Street, the East End (with its 350 years of immigrants,) as well as costumed guides adopting the personae of Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde. Nothing beats learning through storytelling.


…..and back at my desk writing biographies, I’m inspired to try to recreate on a printed page the experiences of “being there” – in the place where history happened and stories began. Tough job, that. I’m also inspired to ponder the possibilities when I, and others, will enter the world of multimedia e-books, using music, spoken words, and moving images to enhance the stories we tell.


Unknown said...

It sounds like you visited some wonderful places and now you'll be able to describe them so much more vividly. I love books that include the little details observed during first-hand experience.

April Pulley Sayre said...

Great post, Gretchen. I'm intrigued by this idea that as books move into multimedia perhaps we authors should learn from multimedia formats such as museums, who have been bringing nonfiction to life for years. Sounds like I have yet another excuse to visit Chicago's Field Museum. :-)