Thames Valley Museums pack 'em in during Christmas 2005

By Nicola Tann | 19 December 2005
  • News
  • Archived article
Shows a photo of a man dressed as Santa Claus against the backdrop of a wooden cart.

A performer from a Christmas 'Mumming', a regional cultural performance, shows off his splendid costume. Courtesy Cogges Manor Farm Museum.

24 Hour Museum Thames Valley Partnership Writer Nicola Tann takes a look at how museums in the region have risen to the challenge and made the most of the opportunity of Christmas.

Here we are again - turkey, mince pies, Morecambe and Wise repeats, more turkey, and promises of diets in the New Year - Christmas is once more upon us. But how have museums in Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire helped family groups celebrate the festive season?

For many of our museums Christmas provides a great opportunity to appeal to different audiences and pull in new visitors, but it’s not all fat men in red and white suits.

While some have chosen to focus on the Christian traditions many of us have grown up with, other have looked to Pagan customs, C.S. Lewis and even Taiwanese-star-folding.

At Slough Museum in Berkshire they have a slightly different approach between the more traditional salt dough decoration making and wrapping-paper printing. Although there are still Christmas events going on they don’t focus exclusively on Christmas at this time of year so as to reflect the large non-Christian community in their area.

“We have an event where the children can write a postcard to Santa about how they each, individually, celebrate Christmas at home and the postcards go on display in the museum,” says Claire Toogood, the Creative Coordinator at Slough Museum. “With this we try to reflect the diverse cultures we have here in Slough.”

Shows a photo of a holly wreath on an old wooden door.

A traditional Christmas wreath. Courtesy Cogges Manor Farm Museum.

Cogges Manor Farm Museum in Oxfordshire has kept it more traditional, although it has still drawn on a mix of Christian, pagan and modern Christmas events.

For their advent weekend, the first weekend in December, they presented a Children’s Nativity performance in their barns and stable, hosted a Santa’s Grotto in the Visitors Centre and made sugar mice, decorations and cards around the Christmas tree in the Manor House

“At times like Halloween and Christmas we need to be sensitive to the feelings of some of our visitors,” says Victoria Beaumont, Assistant Museum Manager at Cogges. “Our traditional advent weekend combines pagan traditions, a Christian nativity play and typical commercially led "tinsel" activities, but we solve the problem by keeping them separate - this seems to keep everyone satisfied.”

Shows a photo of a vase containing holly, sitting on a window sill.

A vase of holly sets off the traditional Christmas feel at Cogges Farm. Courtesy Cogges Manor Farm Museum.

For those who crave a more Dickensian Christmas, Wycombe Museum, set in an 18th century house in Buckinghamshire, retained many aspects of the traditional. Among the mulled wine and mince pies you could hear carols from the Knole Singers, a singing quartet, and write your own festive message on handmade snowflakes that adorned the windows.

“We wanted to try and give the event a traditional family ‘Christmas feel’ in keeping with the house that is the museum building,” says Zara Luxford, Museums Officer for Wycombe Museum.

For those of a more literary ilk, the brand new Roald Dahl Museum, opened in June 2005, was designed and built to be a family friendly literary venue and this is reflected in their winter programme.

Shows a photo of a small girl deep in concentration as she decorates a chocolate bar.

Getting stuck in - a young girl concentrates on her chocolate design at the Roald Dahl Museum. Courtesy Roald Dahl Museum.

Among various story telling events, you can decorate your own chocolate bar with the help of a local chocolatier, or you can help decorate the ‘Poet-Tree’ – a Christmas tree that visitors are invited to decorate with poems.

“Being a literary venue this kind of activity makes a lot of sense for us and ties in with our family friendly theme,” says Sue Davies, Museum Director. “Although we do host children’s events we don’t market directly towards children but try to run events which can have a more multi-layered interpretation.”

At the Museum of Oxford they have been using local celebrity to help appeal to the community. Focussing on the story of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by famous former Oxford resident, C.S. Lewis has proved popular with visitors according to Vanessa Lea, Museum Operations Officer at the Museum of Oxford.

Shows a photo of two pieces of string with Christmas-style decorations hanging from them.

A display of paper stars from the Taiwanese tradition of 'Wishing stars'. Courtesy Museum of the History of Science.

Encouraging us to get astrological with a whole day devoted to stars, the Museum of the History of Science, also in Oxford, provided an opportunity for visitors to get a grip on the heavens.

Children made 'star gazers' to show the positions of various stars in the heavens. While, in another activity based on a Taiwanese tradition of folding paper stars and giving them to friends and family, volunteers helped children and small family groups make paper 'wishing stars' and package them up as gifts.

Sensitivity to audiences has provided the Thames Valley with a really comprehensive programme of activities for Christmas.

“As with all our activities which try to engage family audiences, we try to make them relevant to the collections as well as to the season, free where possible, and drop-in so that people can take them or leave them,” says Joy Todd, Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where they are playing traditional Oxfordshire games, decorating a tree and following festive trails.

Such a diverse range of activities across the Thames Valley region this Christmas has been developed by each venue playing to its own strengths and developing its regional flavour along with creative, reflective and thoughtful programming.

And, if you’ve missed any of these events but like the sound of them, there’ll be plenty more in the New Year.