Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Newcastle Day Trip

Someone from Liverpool told me that Newcastle "is the second best city in the country," and after reading about a museum dedicated to children's literature and the rejuvenated downtown, I decided that it was well worth the 45 minute train trip to the north. There I discovered a museum that merged imagination and play with the difficult realities of history and innovative ways to insert art into the greater community.

Once I arrived I found my way to the Ousburn Valley, a hip, canal-enlaced neighborhood a mile or so from the train station. I walked along the Tyne and admired the iconic bridges that span the river and the graffiti art as I made my way to Seven Stories (, the only museum in Britain dedicated to children's books. The, yes, seven floor museum is filled with reading nooks, colorfully crafted storyteller thrones, and exhibits showcasing the original manuscripts and illustrations of the collections.

The museum merged play and literature with an exploration of historic/ contemporary topics of concern. This was particularly highlighted in a moving exhibit on the life and work of beloved children's author, Judith Kerr. It showed the parallels between Kerr's life and her books, including her family's move from Germany before the outbreak of WWII and her experience as a refugee as reflected in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. Amazingly, during the family's many moves Judith's mother kept her young daughter's drawings, many of which are displayed in the exhibit. The most powerful element for me was the video showing the reactions of children who learned about young Judith the refugee, including conversations on what they would bring if they had to leave and could only carry one treasured item.

After Seven Stories I walked to the Biscuit Factory, a rehabilitated cookie manufacturing plant that houses an expansive gallery dedicated to displaying the works of Northeast artists. I did not purchase any art, but if I were a British citizen I would have due to the spectacular Own Art Scheme ( This program aims to "make it easy and affordable for everyone to buy contemporary works of art." The Arts Council of England provides up to 2000 pounds of interest-free credit to purchase art, and the borrower pays the council in 10 monthly installments. Fantastic! What a simple way to empower those without large bank accounts to own art and support the local arts community and economy! I can imagine the myriad benefits of a program like this back in Columbia or Portland.

Leaving the Biscuit Factory I looped back downtown and walked through the city's Georgian core, where I encountered another effective tactic for exposing the community to art. Empty store fronts were converted into temporary art exhibits. One displayed the work of a glass artist, the other of a metal sculptor. Instead of being a visible sign of the slumping economy or symptomatic of a declining urban core, the potentially derelict spaces are being used to give publicity to artists and exposing art to those walking by.

Finally, a pint of Ginger Beer in the pub rounded off a lovely day trip to Newcastle. And while I haven't been to enough English cities to classify it as "the second best," its attempts at bringing art to the larger community and the city's stellar museums surely boost it towards the top of the list.

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