I’ve spent the last two Saturdays at Preston Manor, where I’ve witnessed twelve young people plot a murder.
You may be relieved to learn that this is an entirely fictional murder, and these young writers are doing for Preston Manor what Brighton crime novelist Peter James did for the Royal Pavilion last year. With the help of creative writing group Little Green Pig, these writers have been producing a murder mystery using Preston Manor as a setting.
However, this is a murder mystery with a difference. Rather than presented as a linear narrative, the individual pieces of writing will be embedded in a recreation of Preston Manor that you can explore online. The reader will need to search for pieces of the story, much as a detective would hunt for clues.
I’ll talk more about the technology in later blog posts. My focus in this post is to talk about how we are developing the project, and why we have chosen to do this.
The workshops were run by Ella Burns of Little Green Pig. At the first session, the writers, all aged between 12 and 16, were introduced to the project, and shown early work on the website by the developer, Richard Sams of Say Digital. We were then treated to a tour of the manor by our Programme Officer, Paula Wrightson. The writers were then taken through the various stages of developing the characters and plot.
The writing really began at the second session. The writers chose objects in the manor that would feature in their stories, and were able to write their pieces in the rooms in which they would be set. Richard had the great idea of giving each participant a business card that allows them to view a preview of the website Say Digital are building, so that they can see the ‘virtual’ spaces as they develop online.
There is one workshop left to do, but already the stories tell a tangled tale of greed, romance and scandal that lead to murder. Having had the chance to observe some of the work in progress, I’m impressed by how the manor has inspired the writers’ imaginations, and their use of language in crafting these stories far exceeds my expectations.
Why are we doing this?
It may seem odd that a museum is creating an experience which is about things that never happened at the manor. We are seen as scholarly institutions, and it may be reasonable to expect that we should spend our time talking about factually correct histories rather than dabbling in fiction.
There are two reasons why we are doing this. The first is that it’s a way of encouraging young people to engage with one of our historic buildings. The project is very much a co-production with the young writers, and based on a model in which they are given a clearly defined space in which they can express themselves. Access to the manor and the digital technology is all used to build a canvas for their creativity. How that space is filled is entirely down to the writers and how they are guided by Little Green Pig. The museum takes no editorial control over the content, and gives the writers ownership of that space, while providing access to the processes that support their work. As my colleague Paula puts it, it is a way of turning the manor into a ‘theatre for the imagination’.
The second reason is to do with storytelling. The project is funded as part of the Arts Council’s Renaissance in the Regions programme, and like several projects funded by that scheme, it explores how museums can work with other forms of creative practice. Creative writing is often an easy fit for museums; for as much as we are focused on the interpretation and conservation of objects in our collections, we are storytelling organisations at heart. Visit any gallery or exhibition, and it will always be telling you some sort of story about human or natural history. But we also realise that our role is to help others tell their stories too.
Museums are great places to inspire creative writing, but, for me, once the piece of writing comes to be published, it can often become divorced from the source of inspiration. A photograph of the object or building may help illustrate the story, but the ambience and context are sometimes inevitably lost. Digital technology offers ways in which this can be addressed. Our approach here is to create a surrogate digital space which can be reclaimed and reinterpreted by others.
You will be able to judge the results of this soon. We are aiming to launch the website around Easter time. And although we can’t yet reveal whether the butler did it, we can say that it certainly wasn’t the curator.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer