It was midwinter. I was in the cavernous Hay Cinema Bookshop in Wales’ ‘town of books’, surrounded by bookcases at every turn. This one-time picturehouse defies all notions of what the modern bookshop should be. There is no fizz or fanfare, just 200,000 books organised into hundreds of categories, covering 1200 sqm of floorspace over two floors.
For a couple of hours, I had been looking at books, intrigued by titles, bindings, cover designs, notes scribbled on endpapers. There were thousands of stories, just there in that one bookshop. There and then I had the idea for an interactive museum of books. A place that tells the story around books as well as those in the books, one that looked to the future as much as the past. A participative museum that involves people in the making of books. A museum that reflects the nature of books: innovative, democratic, flexible, and with endless creative possibilities. Like books themselves, the museum could be a tool for social change, a platform for sharing ideas and knowledge, connecting people across boundaries.
Over the coming months I set about reading everything I could about the making of books, and the characters, innovations, people and places that make up the story of books. Books: A Living History, The Case for Books, This is Not the End of the Book, 500 Years of Printing ... the piles of books about books around my desk grew. I listened to podcasts, read blogs, watched documentaries, noted all the speakers at FutureBook and followed them on social media. I delved into publishers’ archives, and spoke to museum experts, curators, keepers of collections and conservation experts from around the world.
I plotted out on a map all the existing museums related to books, printing, paper, or interesting examples of multi-use spaces or innovative projects. I set about visiting as many as I could. Through this research, I was developing a network of supporters in different countries, from the fields of museums, archives, libraries, heritage, publishing, bookselling, education, craft, art and design, tech, not-for-profit organisations.
Early on, I partnered with the owner of a large and significant collection of printing presses. My vision was for a working museum with a college-like space, where experts could pass on their skills, working cross-generationally. The owner of the collection wanted it to be kept together so that people from around the world could use the presses.
A miniature Albion press
Just over a mile from Hay, in Clyro, is Baskerville Hall, said to be the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The hall is an operating hotel business with accommodation for 140 people across a range of budgets, a campsite, function rooms, a pub, and a performance studio. It is set in 130 acres of grounds and woodland with spectacular views across the Wye Valley. The hotel has a loyal and eclectic customer base, built up over 30 years. Most are groups who use the site for training, conferences, festivals, gatherings and retreats. With views across to Hay and the Black Mountains, this Victorian gothic mansion Baskerville Hall has a innate and unpretentious charm. It is a fabulous site for a museum of books.
That winter’s day in Hay Cinema Bookshop was five years ago. This year we’ll be launching the world’s first working museum dedicated to all aspects of books. From its permanent, physical HQ at Baskerville Hall, it will create a series of collaborative and inclusive experiences – exhibitions, events, tours, digital projects and curated spaces – around the globe.
Emma Balch at Baskerville Hall
The Story of Books at Baskerville Hall will be a lively, social place where stories are told and books are made. It will be a unique venue: a museum with rooms; a working space that is open to all; a place where the making and selling of books is practiced day in, day out.
The museum will be fully integrated with the hotel and grounds, working together to develop an international visitor destination. Some of our priority projects for the museum are:
- Two major exhibitions per year at Baskerville Hall and other locations
- Open working space with traditional and new technology for making books
- Apprenticeships, and ‘a year in books’ programme for young people
- The Story of Books ‘experience’ (half/full day, short stay or week)
- Venue for immersive screenings, projections, and performances
- Project Lab for testing out ideas for future projects and new tech
At this point we are particularly looking for great stories, and access to content (including print, online, sound, film) and expertise from publishers, booksellers, agents and authors. There are also opportunities for branded, co-created rooms of different sizes at Baskerville Hall.
Like stories and books themselves, this museum is for everyone. Please get in touch, and be part of the story.