Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire, had attracted Brontë fans from across the globe. Its collections are the largest and most important in the world and continue to inspire scholars, writers and artists. But The Brontë Society, which was founded in 1893, is a charity. While it receives public funding from Arts Council England, it relies heavily on admissions and the generosity of members for its income. During lockdown, the museum was forced to closed for the first time in more than a century.
Recently, it has reopened its doors to the public, almost 126 years to the day that the original museum opened in 1895. The reopening will be marked with two new exhibitions, one from celebrated ceramic artist Layla Khoo and another from Isabel Greenberg, the illustrator and writer behind the Brontë-inspired graphic novel Glass Town. Here, Rebecca Yorke, part of the Brontë Parsonage Museum Executive Team, talks to Northern Soul about navigating closure during a global pandemic, the positives of going digital, and she shares details about the new exhibitions.
Northern Soul: How has the Brontë Parsonage Museum been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Rebecca Yorke: Like museums and galleries everywhere, the museum has spent most of the last 15 months closed. This has had an impact on income and on our staff, most of whom were furloughed for many months while a core few worked from home.
NS: Can you tell us about the two new exhibitions that will mark the museum’s reopening?
RY: We’re delighted to reopen with two new exhibitions. Gondal Arise! is a series of artworks by graphic artist Isabel Greenberg featuring Gondal, the imaginary world created by Emily and Anne Brontë when they were children. The exhibition comprises original illustrations from Isabel’s graphic novel, Glass Town, alongside new pieces.
Contemplating Hope is an installation by Layla Khoo, which invites visitors to think about the future, namely their hopes and aspirations for the next four years. Khoo has created 12 unique ceramic vessels into which participants can then post their thoughts. The work is inspired by the diary papers of Emily and Anne Brontë. The two sisters used to write down their own hopes and store them in a tin box where they remained for four years before being revisited.
RY: For many people, I think the events of the last 15 months have caused a shift in priorities and what’s really important. Pre-pandemic hopes for the next four years may have focused on more material things, such as moving house or taking a special holiday. The sacrifices and grief that so many of us have experienced since the spring of 2020 colour things differently. We may hope that loved ones will stay well or recover or that the vaccine will reach all those who need it. Also, I think our sense of hope for the future is matched by one of gratitude for what we already have. On a different level, there are things that we may hope for as a society, like bringing climate change under control or seeing equality for all, things that may not seem so out of reach as they once did.
NS: What further events are being announced for the summer?
RY: We’re delighted to be part of Bradford’s Summer Unlocked programme, which will see a newly commissioned installation in Parson’s Field behind the Parsonage.
RY: Not just yet, but we’ll be announcing our programme, which will be digital this year, in the coming weeks. It’s a brilliant line-up under the banner of Speaking Out, so keep an eye on our website for details
NS: The museum received £119,200 from Arts Council England and the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund. How has this helped The Brontë Society to support the museum through lockdown?
RY: Closing the museum for the longest period in our history had a huge financial impact and so, on a fundamental level, the emergency and recovery funding helped us to keep going. It covered the costs of reopening, including PPE, new signage, screens etc, facilitated homeworking, e.g. upgrades to our IT systems, as well as enabling us to continue with our planned programme of exhibitions.
NS: What was the response to the digital programme? Has an online platform allowed you to reach new audiences?
RY: Just brilliant. Our new Brontë Lounge events, where guest writers and artists talk about the influence the Brontës have had on their own work, have regularly attracted audiences of 150-plus from across the world including Europe, Canada, North America, Mexico as well as from up the road in Yorkshire. There is clearly a global appetite for all things Brontë.
NS: Are online events something that you’re hoping to continue with in the future?
RY: Absolutely. They are a great way to connect with people overseas, but also with those who are unable to visit the Parsonage for other reasons, such as distance, disability or socio-economic factors.
RY: Come and see us, or buy something from our online shop. Or join The Brontë Society. We’ve also recently launched new digital membership packages, including a free one for those aged 16-25.
NS: What’s the most positive moment/thing you’ve experienced during the COVID-19 crisis?
RY: Work-wise, there have been quite a few. The overwhelming response to our fundraising campaign, the excitement and sense of community at our first Brontë Lounge event, reopening at the end of August last year, and our brilliant staff all pulling together to help us get through.
NS: What does the ‘new normal’ mean for the Brontë Parsonage Museum?
RY: Social distancing restrictions mean that we need to continue to limit numbers in the museum for now but, going forward, we’re looking forward to welcoming larger groups again. We’ll be exploring new ways to share our collection and the Brontë legacy with our audiences, locally and globally, and doing all we can to build resilience for the future.
Main image: Brontë Parsonage. Copyright The Brontë Society.
Contemplating Hope by Layla Khoo is the first of two new exhibitions to take place in the museum and will be in situ until May 2022. Also new to the museum is Gondal Arise!, an installation by Isabel Greenberg, the author and illustrator of Glass Town, a graphic-not-quite-biography of the Brontës and their juvenilia, the stories written by the Brontës in their youth. The installation will be in place until December 2021.
For more information, visit bronte.org.uk.