Working with themes

So you've opened a building over Heritage Open Days, people enjoyed your tour, but what next? Have you ever thought working with themes? Believe it or not, it's something quite obvious - just there waiting to be discovered, explored and told.

© Tim Prevett - Ghostly host in a tunnel on Crewe Station, once home to very busy postal traffic

The very nature of a building, or any aspect of the historic environment sets up a theme that can be explored through whatever desired medium. For me that will be tours, and very topical ones for this time of year, concerning ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. Or vibey prehistoric sites like stone circles and neolithic tombs.

Some of my favourite themes

For my hunger for the really ancient, The Megalithic Portal website is a marvellous resource for getting to grips with places like Stonehenge and its wider landscape, or the Avebury World Heritage site. Less famous places too, for exploring their underlying prehistoric theme. Recently we had a marvellous day starting at Arbor Low henge and stone circle, on to Minning Low along the High Peak Trail for a multiple chambered neolithic burial monument. A not very obvious Romano-British settlement in a hidden valley at Rainster Rocks near Brassington, and finishing at Harboro Rocks - the site of a lost chambered tomb.

For the tours I develop and run in Crewe, thematic exploration helps me find new surprising angles that will entice people into coming back and revisiting simingly familiar places. For example, my “Strange at Crewe” tour is a ghostly tour of Crewe’s iconic train station. It groups tales of creepy goings on from the middle of the Victorian period up to the present day. Through hidden or lost heritage features I explore the station’s past, such as questions like Queen Victoria having her own private tunnel linking to the Crewe Arms Hotel. (The Crewe Arms is the world’s first dedicated train station-serving accommodation provider and once provided overnight respite for Victoria, Prince Albert and a considerable royal entourage). In a quiet tunnel on the south side of the station, once a hive of activity, you can consider just how important was the postal traffic for Crewe’s establishment as major transport link and interchange. Even references in fictional stories come into play. Walter De La Mare penned a short horror story: “Crewe”, which is set in the first class lounge of his period. On the tour, I stop there to highlight this little known literary connection with the station.

Edinburgh, my favourite city, boasts a wealth of tours which revel in a whole host of different themes. Mercat Tours have a wide portfolio of brilliant tours. The Cadies and Witchery Tours do a superbly comic, almost pythonesque tour of macabre history, while Black Hart Entertainment do the scariest tours I have ever done. All these have very different styles, but all explore their grim and spooky themes marvellously.

How themes can work for you

But you may not have a ghost resident at your building. Nothing sinister there either. So how can a thematic approach work for you? Just reflect on what makes your place special and break it down into its components. Each can become a theme and the basis for a new tour, trail, exhibition or activity, providing the opportunity to involve different experts and groups.

If it’s a Victorian building say, you could start by focussing on the most basic aspect - its architectural features and how it was built. Then you may look at the human element, the people who once lived or worked there, and trace their stories. You can widen the focus from the specific to the more general. What were the living or working conditions at the time? What did people wear, eat or were concerned about in 19th century? What has changed and what hasn't since Queen Victoria's reign? Are there any events in local or national history you can refer to? Any anniversaries to tie into? And of course you can be inspired by all kinds of things, like the seasons to throw a new light on things and add value to the visiting experience.

Whatever the place, whatever the period, it's amazing how many different takes there are to bring it alive and captivate you and your prospective audiences. As tempting as it might be, try not to show off all your assets at once, not to go for a comprehensive interpretation of your object. Take a long-term perspective. Serve your cake slice by slice.