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Expert Comment: Dickens Museum to close during author's bicentenary year

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Dr. Trish Ferguson, Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool Hope University

In 1925 the Charles Dickens Museum was opened at his former residence at 48 Doughty Street, the only London house in which he lived that is still standing. This is the only museum dedicated to Charles Dickens and is one of the most important literary museums in the world. Not only does this museum boast the finest collection of Dickens’s manuscripts and rare editions of his books but it also houses many personal items that Dickens owned when he lived in this residence from April 1837 to December of 1839.

From April to December 2012, at a time of heightened public interest in Dickens’s work, the Dickens Museum will close its doors to the public as it continues large-scale refurbishment that was due to have been completed in time for this year’s bicentennial celebrations. According to the Board and Management of the Museum ‘it is in the best interest of its heritage assets that the closure takes place when there are a large number of alternative Dickens activities on offer.’ These alternatives include an exhibition in the British Library on the supernatural in Dickens’s writing and an exhibition at the Museum of London that seeks to recreate the experience of Dickens’s London through exhibits and audio-visual resources.

While these efforts toward contextualisation are laudable, it could be argued that Dickens is strangely absent from these celebrations of his work, none of which feature an extensive display of his books or manuscripts. Sadly, as museums increasingly embrace the vogue for technology, visitors become passive recipients of the same experience and removed from the original work of art. The effect of walking in Dickens’s footsteps is offered by the Charles Dickens Museum in the form of ‘apps and trails for London and Kent,’ small compensation for not being able to walk in his footsteps in 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist and where his sister-in-law Mary died in his arms in 1837, which he famously fictionalised as the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. Mention of this scene, whether it inspires tears or laughter, reminds us that the appreciation of English literature is an emotional experience, one that requires us to enter sympathetically into a writer’s imagination. The Charles Dickens Museum offered such an opportunity but sadly not at a time when heightened interest could have brought a new audience to the original manuscripts and books of one of England’s greatest novelists. 

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