Once Upon a Museum

Partner Clare Hughes explores a new idea for education in museums as part of her Winston Churchill Fellowship to 'reimagine museums'.

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

When I began the journey to reimagine museums I was determined that, however limited for time, I would try to take inspiration from places and people outside the world of museums and collections. So, on my recent trip to San Francisco, I set off on an early Sunday morning to explore what new and wacky ideas the neighbourhoods of San Francisco might reveal to a curious mind. 

I kicked off in the Mission District (famous for its colourful murals) because I’d been told it’s a neighbourhood in transition, shifting from Latino family communities to young “tech” wealth. Colourful, bohemian streets with a chequered mix of minimalist restaurants alongside gaudy taquerias bear witness to this transformation. So far so global..... But then I came across 826 Valencia and that’s when I woke up.

It took me a while to work out what was going on. The graphic mural above the storefront looked intriguing but indecipherable from the sidewalk (I learned later that it depicts a complex history of communication) while the storefront window tells stories of the "2015 Scholars" : awards given to outstanding public school students in the Bay Area.

So it looks like an educational charity of some sort but, step over the threshold, and you land in a pirate supplies store selling anything and everything the modern buccaneer might need. What on earth....? 

I interrogated the cashier and learned that 826 Valencia is a creative writing space which invites writers, editors and educators to volunteer one-to-one creative tutoring with school kids and high school students. Created by the writer Dave Eggers, the idea was simply to help them with their homework by giving one to one attention (virtually impossible in a school classroom) and allowing them to experience their own capacity for thinking and creating. How 826 Valencia came to be, why the pirate supplies storefront, and how it has grown is a superbly inspiring story that makes you want to set up an 826 everywhere in the world. And that’s just what Dave Eggers wants us to do. His TED talk called Once Upon A School is really inspiring - and very funny.

Getting one to one help with written homework was just the start. Through this kind of creative coaching students begin to discover their innate abilities to express imagination, humour, story and now the best work is published in the 826 Quarterly. A group even wrote to President Obama giving him 100 tips for a good presidency! Talk about finding a voice....

Creative writing, making up stories, finding a personal voice gives young people permission to let go, to run with ideas and to have fun. After all, there is no right way to write a story.

So, Mission Accomplished in the Mission. A new idea for education in museums by connecting with young people from a crazy store in a random neighbourhood. 

Museums are first and foremost places of creativity and of learning and while most museums do masses of educational programmes, the richness of 826 Valencia made me wonder how many get down and dirty and help kids who are simply struggling with their homework…?   If you know of any please get in touch! That might not be their primary role and some would be better placed than others to offer more creative and individualised empowerment. But in the meantime, 826 Valencia is going in my bag of treasures from the "New World" which has fired my imagination to help museums make a more direct impact on young people’s lives.

Clare Hughes


Image Captions:

1. Detail of collage mural in Balmy Alley, Mission District, San Francisco

2. 826 Valenica mural by cartoonist Chris Ware

3. Meet our Scholars: awards given to outstanding public school students in the Bay Area

4. Inside 826 Valencia

5. Publications of students' creative writing at 826 Valencia. Amy Tan, Isabelle Allende and many others have sponsored themed writing projects with great success