Exhibition Review – Michael Morpurgo: A Lifetime in Stories

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For decades Michael Morpurgo’s stories have captivated and inspired generations of children. In over a hundred books he has championed education, environmental awareness and peace as ways to protect and empower children all over the world. To celebrate his achievements and to inspire people of all ages, The National Centre for Children’s Books is hosting an exhibition in the Leeds City Museum this spring.

Tucked away on the top floor of the museum, the exhibition opens up to an array of art displaying scenes from Morpurgo’s stories under soft, calming light. Michael Foreman’s cover art for ‘Kensuke’s Kingdom’ stands as bold as ever; the entire landscape painting making the protagonist’s ship seem small and frail against the deep blue of the powerful sea and pale red of an overbearing sky. More art backdrops a selection of short biographical pieces about Morpurgo’s early life, which are in turn interspersed with manuscripts and letters written by the author himself. The overall effect is a seamless integration of information, artwork and written artefacts that paint a beautiful picture of Morpurgo’s life leading up to his career as a storyteller.

The centre of this first room is kept clear. With nothing but a wooden bench and two small boxes of Morpurgo’s work taking up space the room has an almost homely feel to it. As I first entered I was encouraged to find a small group of children quietly reading a collection of books, entranced by the artwork and atmosphere around them.

When making an exhibition targeted partially at children, The National Centre for Children’s Books did not fail to remember what makes a museum interesting to a child. This may sound absurd but too often exhibitions tailored for younger audiences present their information in ways that can lose the interest of their target demographic. It’s easy to make jokes about children being loud and annoying in museums; but in the time I was there, the kids were just as hooked on what the exhibition had to offer as the adults.

Further into the museum, original drafts of stories are displayed next to information about the inspiration behind Morpurgo’s beloved books. Quotes from stories fill the empty spaces on the walls and add a sense of drama to the proceedings.

“They will be shooting one of their own and it feels to them like murder” stands poignantly beside a display about ‘Private Peaceful’ and the “futile loss of life” that inspired the story. The large section of the room dedicated to ‘War Horse’ is coupled with energetic and frightening accounts of “shells” and “machine gun fire” that perfectly set the scene for the story. This attention to detail immerses the audience in Morpurgo’s stories, bringing them to life one by one as people make their way around the exhibition.

This immersion is heightened with the creative use of props from the theatre production and movie adaptation of ‘War Horse’ as well as a map of the island from ‘Kensuke’s Kingdom’ stretched out on the floor. The exhibition also has a small boat from ‘The Wreck of the Zanzibar’ to take pictures in and artwork created by children and adults inspired by Morpurgo’s stories.

If you’re a Michael Morpurgo fan then ‘A Lifetime in Stories’ ticks all the boxes. The exhibition captures the spirit of Morpurgo’s work in the very first room and then further immerses the audience in the elegant storytelling and life of one of Britain’s most beloved children’s author. With no entry fee and full accessibility the exhibition comes as a strong recommendation to fans of the author of every age.

Matthew Jeffery

Image credit: vam.ac.uk