Jane Austen’s historic home and museum in Chawton, Hampshire, became the centre of a tragic tale this year. Like many museums all over the world, the museum was forced to close in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This meant the house where Jane Austen lived and wrote Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility – all six of her novels – was on the brink of permanent closure. Without visitors, the house had no way of covering its costs.
Nine months and a successful fundraising appeal later and Jane Austen’s House has not only been able to reopen, but it has also become an enchanting destination online. From Austen-themed chats and guided virtual tours to remote get-togethers celebrating all things Jane Austen, the museum now hosts a range of digital events and experiences for “Janeites” all over the world.
By rounding up my favourite recent Jane Austen’s House community-led initiatives, I hope to inspire other museums, big and small, to connect with their visitors in new and meaningful ways.
Austen Wednesdays, cheerfully announced by the wonderful Lucy Worsley, is a monthly conversation series with leading historians, authors and Jane Austen aficionados.
Historian Lucy Worsley introduces Austen Wednesdays.
The conversations are hosted by a member of the museum’s staff and recorded on YouTube (they’re free to watch, but donations are always appreciated).
The first three Austen Wednesdays are very different, enlightening conversations about Jane Austen’s beloved characters, regency fashion and the writer’s family and friends.
Questions from the interviewer and Austen fans on social media guide the chats, which then are posted on the museum’s website and YouTube channel so viewers can watch at their leisure.
This video series is a consistent, engaging and informative way to connect with the Jane Austen community – people who may have visited the museum before or people who simply love Jane’s novels – online.
Jane Austen’s House From Home
Not your typical 360° tour, this virtual walk around Jane Austen’s Chawton home includes lively audio clips, facts about each room and treasured objects (including her writing table) and colourful illustrations dressed in true Austen fashion.
While you can discover a lot about the house on your own, you can also go on a guided virtual tour with a member of the museum’s team (£5 per ticket). These one-hour walks are designed for small groups so people can chat with one other and ask questions throughout.
As this study shows, having an expert guide take visitors on a virtual tour creates a richer experience.
Having never visited the house myself and coming away with a sense of how Jane Austen lived, along with her mother, sister and friend, is in my opinion, a virtual tour triumph.
Online Christmas Experience (and Gingerbread Challenge)
Christmas came early at the Jane Austen House. The Twelve Days of Christmas kicked off online on November 25th. The seasonal special is a festive calendar of sorts with 12 Christmas traditions, recipes, quotes and games from Jane Austen’s letters, novels and close friend’s recipe book.
The cherry on top? Accompanying audio recordings by Emma Thompson.
Mixed media is sprinkled throughout the online experience, as well as other little treats for the visitor. Without giving too much away, there is a gingerbread challenge tucked into one of the days. Not only is it a fun idea for a home activity, everyone is encouraged to get creative and submit a photo of their gingerbread biscuit to the museum’s online gallery.
There are many reasons this online Christmas experience is a most wonderful delight, with three of the top being:
- The experience is built around the museum’s collection and specialist knowledge
- It’s user-friendly and easy to navigate
- Visitors are encouraged to get involved at home and become a part of the celebration, which leads to higher engagement and great user-generated content
Virtual Birthday Tea Party
Jane Austen was born on December 16th, 1775. To mark the occasion, what would have been her 245th birthday, Jane Austen’s House put on an evening of virtual celebrations.
Over 230 people joined in from all over the world, most donning beautiful bonnets and raising their teacups to the esteemed writer.
Throughout the course of an hour, the party’s attendees listened to a tribute to Jane Austen, learned about Christmas foods and drinks that Jane would have enjoyed, tested their Austen knowledge with a fun quiz, and more!
The virtual get-together was a success on many different levels:
- The hour was filled with expert speakers, fun activities and group participation
- Jane Austen fans from anywhere in the world could join the celebration
- Each ticket raised money for the museum
- Attendees learned about other events and digital experiences at the museum
Jane Austen’s House, like many museums this year, suffered devastating losses because of the pandemic. Their doors shut, visitor income vanished and most of their staff were furloughed.
While things haven’t returned to “business as usual” – and very well might not anytime soon – this treasured site of literary importance persevered.
One area in which they’ve successfully turned their focus towards is their digital strategy. From a new monthly video series and guided virtual tour to an engaging online Christmas experience and remote birthday celebration, Jane Austen’s House illustrates the value of creating community-driven digital content and experiences.
If you’d like to find out about how your museum or heritage organisation can make your digital content stand out and capture your community’s attention, don’t hesitate to get in touch. At CBA Content, we help cultural organisations with everything from ideation and planning to creation and analysis.