The Story Museum

Arts Impact Fund

The invetment will help the museum continue to enchant and enrich children’s and their families’ lives, while improving its financial sustainability and resilience.

The Story Museum

Region: South East
Discipline: Museum
Investment size: £400,000

The Story Museum is an Oxford-based arts charity founded in 2003. It set out to celebrate great stories, demonstrating their importance to human culture, heritage, learning and well-being, and empowering people to create their own stories along the way. The idea came out of Founding Director Kim Pickin’s conviction about the importance of engaging children and young people in literature and the role stories play in their overall development, in particular the ability to spark creativity and curiosity, build language confidence and communication skills, and foster stronger connections between children and their families through the shared experience of reading and storytelling. The organisation began by taking authors, illustrators and storytellers into schools and communities as a way of addressing poor literacy levels before acquiring, in 2009, a set of three buildings in central Oxford, which had been vacant for over a decade. The site, organised around an inner courtyard, is fronted by Rochester House in Pembroke Street, dating back to the 19th century, with two further buildings that formerly housed the Post Office Sorting Office and Telephone Exchange. 

Since taking possession of the site, The Story Museum has continued to work on improving it as funds and opportunity allow, following a masterplan to refurbish the entire property, for which it was granted a full planning permission in 2012. The most significant phase of works (referred to as Chapter 1) was completed in 2013-14, creating a total of 2000 sq.m useable space and allowing The Story Museum to open a year-round public offer from April 2014.

Before closing its exhibition spaces for capital works in July 2018, The Story Museum was offering a public programme of immersive, interactive exhibitions seven days a week during school holiday periods and three days a week in term time. These immersive exhibitions proved really popular with visitors and many became semi-permanent fixtures. Alongside exhibitions, The Story Museum ran an associated programme of regular events for different ages from pre-school to adult and one-off events as part of a changing seasonal programme including author, illustrator and storyteller talks and workshops, skill development courses, and performances.

The site also comprises a 24-cover counter service café (The Story Café), run in-house, and a small shop stocking books and related gifts. The café has a family-friendly space and food offer, which attracts both museum visitors and casual customers. In addition, it hosts regular, mostly free, drop-in storytelling sessions. Several of The Story Museum’s spaces are also let on a one-off or longer term basis to a variety of clients ranging from the City and County Councils, cultural partners, University and local business as well as private individuals and functions. There is good demand for this kind of service in Oxford and The Story Museum has had to turn enquiries away on occasion. 

The Story Museum is a shining example of how arts and culture organisations are continuing to drive innovative interventions and projects, despite the challenging financial environment in the sector.

While the building is atmospheric and rich in history, not all of it is fit for purpose, leading to limitations and multiple demands on available space as well as issues regarding accessibility and the conservation of delicate heritage items. The team believes that the time has come to bring to completion the redevelopment plan they created several years earlier and realise the full vision for the site. Known as Chapter 2, this is the next and most significant phase of works to bring the building into full use for the first time, upgrading existing spaces and creating new galleries, including a space for visiting exhibitions, an immersive multimedia space, a new learning studio, and a performance space, as well as five new semi-permanent exhibitions. In addition, the project will improve the fabric of the building, increase accessibility and add a degree of flexibility within the spaces, so that they can be adapted for different activities. This will enable The Story Museum to build on its activity to date and welcome more diverse audiences and beneficiaries to engage with and benefit from its work. Besides increasing visitor footfall and driving higher revenues, the proposed redevelopment will make The Story Museum’s spaces more adaptable and will increase its capacity to earn income from core activity and external hires and rentals.

The Story Museum approached AIF for a loan of £400,000 to underwrite a portion of the capital budget and support the project cashflow, bridging to confirmed and future fundraising. This enabled The Story Museum to commence work on site in autumn 2018, with a view to completing the construction by October 2019 and opening to the public again in the Spring of 2020.

Plans for the £5.6m project are very advanced, with the museum having already closed to the public from August 2018. While construction works are underway, The Story Museum’s cafe has continued to operate and provide a sense of continuity for local visitors. During Chapter 2, it is accommodating some of The Story Museum’s regular events in addition to its own drop-in programme of activities. Besides this, one of the most loved installations has been made available free of charge, so the museum can maintain its loyal audience and not lose momentum because of the capital project.

The Story Museum is a shining example of how arts and culture organisations are continuing to drive innovative interventions and projects, despite the challenging financial environment in the sector. By putting the focus on stories, rather than objects, they are flipping the traditional assumption of a museum on its head. Not only will this contribute to the rich cultural scene in Oxford, but it will also help preserve a key piece of the city’s storytelling heritage for future generations to come.