English culture woz 'ere

Shakespeare is a `good brand'. As are Elgar and Holst. How best then to market our great artists? With shrines, of course.
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The humble origins and lowly birthplace of Jesus have always been among the most appealing aspects of the Christian story. But birthplaces play a central part, too, in the cult of the creative artist. Britain has a number of birthplace museums and all of them must strike a balance between the interests of the many, who want information and entertainment, and the few, for whom it is almost enough just to be there.

The contrast is intense in the case of the Shakespeare birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon, which receives an average of 2,000 visitors a day, bringing in more than pounds 2m a year and supporting some 270 full- and part- time staff. This is nothing new. People have been visiting the three-storey timbered house in Henley Street since the 17th century. In 1759, it was an attraction on the town map, and in the early part of the 19th century was visited by Sir Walter Scott, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Melville, Cobden and many more.

When the last private owner died, in 1847, the house, by then a pub and a butcher's shop, was auctioned as a business opportunity. The agents boasted that it received 7,000 Shakespeare enthusiasts every year. A bid from PT Barnum, the circus operator, was narrowly beaten by the forerunners of today's Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

What brings people to Stratford? According to Nicolas Walsh, estates and tourism manager, "We can identify a number of people who come because it's the culmination of a lifetime's ambition, and are passionate for knowledge."

"It's a very moving moment," he says. "There can be one or two tears with that, and it's lovely to be able to offer that. And then - crash - in will come 50 in a coach tour of `Windsor, Stratford and the Cotswolds in a day'."

"There are conflicts," he says, judiciously. The coach tours bring in admission fees upon which the trust depends, but such visitors neither browse in the giftshops nor patronise the town's restaurants. Their timetable does not allow it. Even the 15 minutes or so it takes to pass through the birthplace museum, before entering the house, is too long for the coach operators. Walsh has recently started allowing them straight into the house.

Inside the birthplace, guides supply all the information. And while they cater for all levels of knowledge, there is no doubt that they warm to the real enthusiasts.

"We had one Japanese gentleman last summer who was in tears," says Val Batchelor, who has been a guide for four years. "He was in his late sixties or early seventies, and he taught in a university in Tokyo. And he was crying: he had wanted to come for so long. We were both in tears by the end."

More often, the job involves entertaining schoolchildren with accounts of fleas and 16th-century toilet arrangements. The most difficult question is also one of the most common: "Where's the toilet?". There isn't one.

At first-floor level is the room in which Shakespeare may have been born. "Did Shakespeare sleep in that crib?" asks a small American lady in a cotton anorak. He did not, she is told. Nor did his parents sleep in the big bed. The furniture may be the right age, but it has no Shakespearean connections.

And the house has changed since Shakespeare's time. The rear extension is 17th century. The Victorian trust tore down neighbouring houses, removed the floor at second-floor level, and painted over the walls, which were apparently inscribed with the names of numerous early visitors. It then installed its library, which is now accommodated in a modern building that is situated alongside the birthplace.

What remains is largely empty, with dark furniture set out sparsely against walls in a brilliant white unknown to the Elizabethans. If its lottery bid succeeds, the trust plans to fill the void with authentic wall-hangings, rugs, furniture, cutlery and so on. For the first time, there will be an attempt to give a sense of what the house was like to live in.

The idea is to detain the casual visitor without offending those who simply wish to stand and let imagination take over, those whose enthusiasm validates the experience for the rest. But the improvements will make the rooms more crowded and, perhaps, less suitable for mystical communion with the illustrious dead.

"Shakespeare," says Walsh, "is a good brand." Other birthplaces have a less secure place in the world's affections, including two museums devoted to composers. Some 8,000 people every year visit Edward Elgar's cottage at Broadheath, near Worcester, and they are not round-Britain coach trippers. They are British, know who Elgar was, and they come "for the atmosphere and because they feel the spirit of Elgar is still here," according to Melanie Weatherley, the museum's curator.

The museum is a small, pretty cottage, furnished with Elgar's possessions, including his desk. What surprises is the large carpark and a boarded- up brick building behind the cottage, evidence of an attempt to create a significant regional attraction. Built five years ago, after a fund- raising appeal, the Elgar Centre has never been finished.

The plan was to build a study centre and attract 20,000 visitors a year. The National Heritage Lottery Fund rejected the idea, leaving the birthplace trust stranded. It has now bid again, with a plan to use scholarly material as an attraction. Elgar the man will continue to be represented in the cottage, while the new building, devoted to Elgar the musician, will now also include office space and a giftshop. Where the spirit of Elgar will reside is unclear.

But at least Elgar has his place in the pantheon. Gustav Holst remains a marginal figure, and his birthplace museum reflects that. A middle- class terraced house of the 1830s, it sits on a one-way street in the Pittville area of Cheltenham. By 1974, it was a series of run-down bed- sits, but the local council had promised Imogen Holst, daughter and keeper of the composer's memory, that it would provide somewhere to house her memorabilia.

When the house came on the market, a group of enthusiasts joined the council to establish a Holst museum. But from the beginning it has had other roles. The council's newly-installed conservation officer was able to use the new house to demonstrate how to preserve the town's Regency houses. And it was also equipped as an educational museum of Victorian domestic life. The Holst family's live-in maid, Julia Giles, has been developed as a character to star in this aspect. For parties of schoolchildren, learning about social history, she appears in person to demonstrate cooking and housework techniques.

But a trickle of Holst pilgrims come from afar, including Japan, many going home laden with CDs and books. This would have horrified Imogen Holst, who opposed both a shop and the playing of recorded music in the house. And a house is what it remains, to the extent that some visitors believe that the attendants are actually in residence.

The museum costs the council pounds 70,000 a year, but it justifies it as part of the outreach services of its museums and library service. There are large boards detailing the life and works of Holst, but the department's limited Holst archives are not kept at the museum, apparently for reasons of space. There is nowhere to sit and study, although you can see a biographical video, on request.

And there is an interesting collection of objects associated with Holst or members of his family. The prize is his second-hand piano, donated by Imogen Holst, and sometimes made available for visitors to play. Now that, for a pilgrim, would represent the authentic birthplace experience.