The displays at the new Dickens collection. Image courtesy of Guildhall Museum.
An impressive new permanent exhibition at Rochester’s Guildhall Museum will be essential viewing for any Dickens pilgrim. The Dickens Discovery Room, designed by Jasper Jacob Associates, showcases the author as one of Britain’s first real celebrities, and explores his links with Rochester and the Medway area.
Peter Boreham, curator at the Guildhall Museum, is particularly excited about the collection.
“Dickens was the first great celebrity of the nineteenth century. He was almost like the David Beckham of his age. Every time he sneezed the world knew about it!
"What we've tried to do is establish a reference point within the museum that is vibrant, lively and colourful, explaining the basics about Dickens and the Medway towns. Hopefully it will encourage people to get out into the area and see more for themselves."
Rochester Guildhall Museum, home of the Dicken's display.
The Saxon market town of Rochester appears more frequently in the work of Dickens than any other place except London. Dickens lived in the Medway region of Kent from the age of five, and though his family later moved to London, he returned to live in a house near Rochester for the last 13 years of his life.
Rochester is portrayed, sometimes subtly disguised, in many of his books, including The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations. Unlike most English towns, Rochester has been almost untouched by modernisation, and many of the places Dickens describes are still recognizable, including the castle and cathedral so jauntily described by Mr Jingle in Pickwick Papers (1837):
" ‘Ah! fine place,’ said the stranger, ‘glorious pile - frowning walls - tottering arches – dark nooks – crumbling staircases – Old cathedral too – earthy smell – pilgrims’ feet worn away the old steps – little Saxon doors.’ "
Literary tourists have long flocked to Rochester, keen to wander the narrow streets and attempt to answer such burning questions as which building exactly was the model for Miss Havisham’s Satis House (actually an amalgamation of two houses in the town).
Frequent celebratory events, including an annual Dickens Christmas where Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past can be seen wandering the picturesque streets, add to the fun.
The Dicken's display.
But until recently, there was no permanent exhibition dedicated to Dickens. The centrepiece of the collection at the Guildhall Museum is a series of mock-ups of different newspapers and magazines focusing on Dickens the celebrity.
An article in the style of Country Life features the homes Dickens lived in, while a Hello!-style exclusive spills the beans on his affairs with actresses. As Peter explains, "the style of each piece is instantly recognisable, and the nice, bright illustations make the displays very appealing."
The museum has also gathered together various objects that once belonged to Dickens, including his pen, bible ansd walking stick, as well as a rare collection of family portraits.
In addition to the Dickens Discovery Room, the Guildhall Museum has also commissioned an "intimate and personal" film about Dickens in Rochester, shot in and around the town and accompanied by a voice-over of Dickens' own descriptions.
But best of all, once you've found out the history of Dickens in the Medway area, you can wander through the doors into a world still recognisably Dickensian. You can either take a guided tour by costumed interpreters through all the secret sites, or you can make use of a beautifully produced map to find your own way through this historic and intriguing town.
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.