30 Nov 2005,
Last summer saw the launch of an exciting new exhibition space in the up-and-coming Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. On 19 August the doors to the Seven Stories were opened, after ten years in the making and a staggering cost of 6m.
Seven Stories is designed to provide a focal point for a collection of original work, paraphernalia and keepsakes from some of the most prominent children's writers and illustrators.
The project started in 1996 as a way to preserve children's literature memorabilia for posterity, and grew into a national collection providing the material for numerous exhibitions and events over the past few years.
'Our artistic director, Liz Hammill, was working at Waterstone's as a children's bookseller,' says Helena McConnell, Seven Stories marketing and communications officer. 'She was organising events with different authors and illustrators and realised that there was nowhere in Britain for authors and illustrators to deposit their original materials.
'It came to fruition in her mind that to start developing a collection that would hold that material would be a really worthwhile treasure for the country to have.'
Such an endeavour would have been impossible without the backing of eminent names in children's literature. Despite the large amounts of money, obtained from public and private funding, that made the centre possible, the collection itself relied on the goodwill of contributors.
'Liz got the backing of a number of well-known authors and illustrators who pledged an item, or some of their work, and since then the collection has really been simmering in the background,' says Helena. Contributors to the collection include Philip Pullman, Shirley Hughes, Jane Ray, Pat Hutchins and Michael Rosen.
The main body of the collection is actually housed elsewhere, despite the centre's size. Helena explains, 'This building isn't big enough, so, at the moment, a lot of it is stored with the university, as it needs specially controlled environmental conditions.
'But material from it will be used in the exhibitions or for education projects, or will be digitised so that it will be accessible that way. The idea is to eventually develop a special archive for the collection as it grows.'
The collection has grown so large, in fact, that it has a dedicated team of people responsible for sifting through and cataloguing all the material, and ensuring it is stored appropriately. Michael Rosen donated manuscripts of all his children's work, some of which is written literally on the back of an envelope!
True to the nature of its historic industrial surroundings, the Seven Stories centre is set in a large converted mill. It consists of three separate activity rooms on different floors that can be utilised by group bookings for learning activities related to the centre's exhibitions; two gallery floors displaying the centre's current exhibition; a cafe with themed menus; a bookshop; and a book den, which overlooks the entrance and allows children to retreat for a more intimate reading experience. This is all spread over seven floors - or seven storeys, naturally.
'The name Seven Stories came from the idea that there are, academically, seven archetypal stories that all other stories have been regenerated from,' says Helena. The team also consulted local schoolchildren and found they preferred the name Seven Stories to other proposals.
The building's eye-catching modern facade is adorned with illustrations that set the tone for the interior, which is stylish and bright. While it looks like a development that could have cost more than 6m, it retains the feel of a building that was once used in very different ways.
'We wanted to keep the structure of the building as intact as we could, and keep the integrity of the old architecture,' Helena explains.
The Ouseburn Valley is a five-minute car ride from Newcastle city centre, yet it has a very serene and undisturbed air. The area is experiencing regeneration after lying dormant for around a century since its bustling industrial heyday.
Visitors have been flooding in to Seven Stories since the children's laureate Jacqueline Wilson and her principal illustrator Nick Sharratt launched it last August. 'It's been very busy and absolutely delightful really to see it all in action,' says Carey Fluker Hunt, arts education manager of the centre.
Visitors tend to come either as families or as groups, which is probably the best way for schools to bring children. The entrance fee entitles access to whatever exhibition is featured at the time, as well the use of the dedicated activity areas which promote children's engagement with books.
'I think one of the strengths of it is that it appeals to lots of different learning styles,' says Carey. 'A lot of what we do is quite hands-on and exploratory, which obviously suits early years children down to the ground, but is fantastic for older kids as well.
'It allows children to encounter books in quite dynamic ways, so that they can explore the story and the themes while they're here with us, and then go home and revisit the story again later, and that seems to be really positive.'
'We're coming at books in lots of different ways. We look at the original artwork and other exhibits connected with the book; through dressing up and role-play; specific activities that build on a story in the book and encourage you to jump from the story into doing something else; arts and crafts activities and music. There are also plans for more scientific activities that spring from different books, too.'
The collection has enabled the team to put on exhibitions and events all over the country. Now they have a base from which to launch them, and a place to allow children to engage with the material all year round.