Is Bryson the new Tilden?

In Bill Bryson’s latest book, the nation’s favourite travel writer spends quite some time giving his opinion on the museum world.

I’ve just finished reading Bill Bryson’s latest book The Road to Little Dribbling. Boy, he’s gotten grumpy! That’s not a criticism. It adds an edge to his witty quips and observations.

His sequel to Notes from a Small Island, the most successful travel book ever, sees Bryson re-explore his adopted homeland. Now, I’ve come a little too late to the table to offer a book review but I have been drawn to write about the museum visits he makes during the book, and his interpretation…of the interpretation.

Bryson, a former President of the CPRE, is a passionate fan of the British countryside and in my mind makes some valuable observations about museum visitors, and for one he represents one of the larger chunks of the varied museum visitor demographic: white, retired and affluent.


Around halfway through the book Bryson visits Stonehenge.

“The new exhibition space was excellent – excellent as these things can be. It is an impossible task. The exhibition must satisfy people with brains, interest and language skills of variable capacities, and it must keep the crowds moving along, to accommodate the steady flow of new arrivals from behind, so can’t invite lingering. But once we have allowed for that, it is jolly good.”

In my mind this succinctly sums up the challenge of the interpreter by highlighting how we  need to factor in balancing varying visitor needs and the challenges of the actual site. In this case the high visitor numbers among others.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Later on we find Bryson at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. This proves to be another positive experience.

“I have never learned so much, so quickly and so painlessly. I have always wondered what exactly are the differences between all the various British black birds – rooks, crows, ravens, and so on – and here it was all set out for me. I don’t remember any of that now of course (I’m sixty three years old), but for a minute I knew and I was enchanted.”

I totally get this. If I had managed to retain half of the stuff I had read I’d be a dead cert first pick for most pub quiz teams in the humanities and sports category. However, like Bryson my ability to retain information from even the most well written, entertaining and informative book, interpretation panel or whatever beyond a 24 hour period is challenging, and I am over 20 years Bryson’s junior!

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of Bryson’s books. A Short History of Nearly Everything was fascinating but could I recall anything meaningful from it now? Not really. But I know it was good and I will read it again. Bryson will no doubt visit the museum again, or at least tell others how good it was. In fact he has, by writing about it in a book.


Bill Bryson has another positive experience at Ironbridge. Here he learnt about the steel industry –  a subject close to my heart after a very recent project at Magna and several projects in South Wales (inc Wild Wales), and whilst it was perhaps a little too technical for him…

“…all of which went into my head and straight out again, like water through a pipe, so that although I learned nothing form the experience I felt strangely cleansed by it.”

…the experience of being ‘cleansed’ sounds positive.

Grimsby’s Fishing Heritage Centre

Shortly after Bryson visits Grimsby’s Fishing Heritage Centre.

“The best display of all was one showing what the interior of a ship’s galley was like in rough seas…This was everything a museum should be – fun, imaginative, thoroughly absorbing, wonderfully instructive.”

To find out why you’ll have to read the book…or visit Grimsby of course!

Peak District

Finally, a couple of pages later we are in the Peak District. Bryson stumbles across the Derwent Reservoir and a scene from The Virgin and the Gypsy, a film he had seen during his High School days in Iowa. He couldn’t understand why this place was not better known (to find more about it listen to this audio trail).

“Britain is packed so solid with good stuff – with castles, stately homes, hill forts, stone circles, medieval churches, giant figures carved in hillsides, you name it – that a good deal gets lost. It is a permanent astonishment to me how casually strewn with glory Britain is. If the Derwent Dam were in Iowa, it would be on the state’s license plates.”

And this is another ‘challenge’ we face. We have so much ‘good stuff’ competing for visitors attentions. But isn’t that great. I’m sure the Fishing Heritage Centre works on the fraction of English Heritage’s Stonehenge budget, but he was equally enthralled by both.

It is ok that visitors don’t remember everything of what they read when they visit your bit of good stuff, so long as they remember they enjoyed the experience. But of course, if you can get them to take away one message make sure that it is clear and simple, so even visitors like Bryson (and I) will remember it. Freeman Tilden, Bryson’s fellow American and the grandfather of interpretation, sums it up nicely and I’m sure Bryson agrees.

“Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.”


Bill Bryson may not be the new Freeman Tilden, but he does make some very valid and interesting observations. However, one thing still does puzzle me and that is why he called the book ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’. Perhaps I just missed that, or read it and forgot. Either way I enjoyed it and that is what it is all about!