A year ago, the Brontë Society was riven by discord and in-fighting. But now David Barnett finds that the future is looking brighter in Haworth.
2015 saw a swathe of resignations from the society – Bonnie Greer, then the president, among them – and the following year’s AGM saw scenes of discord never before witnessed, as answers were demanded about just what was going to happen to the venerable society going forward. What happened was Kitty Wright.
“There was perhaps a lack of confidence,” says Wright. “A torpor when it came to planning for the future.” So what did she bring to the party? She smiles. “You might say, an Australian can-do attitude.” Originally from Perth, Western Australia, Wright arrived in Britain in 1999.
“I’m not saying I’m succeeding where others have failed, just that with no-one in this post for 18 months there was something of a leadership vacuum. I suppose if I’ve done anything I’ve tried to create a climate of permission, of optimism and energy.”
She is constantly talking about the hard work of the core management and administration team that is based with her in a few rooms at the back of the parsonage – even as executive director, she shares her office with three other people – and bursts with almost visible pride at the work they do there.
Last week the Brontë Society was named as a new member of a rather exclusive club when it became one of the Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisations. What this means in real terms is funding of £930,000 over the next four years. Wright was the one who put in the bid, and there are big plans for the money.
The parsonage already attracts international visitors – a group of Japanese tourists are browsing the exhibits while I’m there – but Wright wants to get the word out with a much stronger online presence. She has a vision of an “augmented reality” website, digital maps, digitised texts from the stock of exhibits: in essence, making their online presence an extension of the physical museum rather than, as Wright calls it, “just an electronic brochure”.
Partnerships with other bodies and organisations to encourage more engagement from under-represented demographics is key to the five-year plan of the Brontë Society – be that schools, higher education establishments, or groups working with black and ethnic minority communities.
And there’s also a bricks-and-mortar aspect to the proposals. Wright looks out of her office window and points to a meadow, beyond the trees that border the the parsonage grounds.
“Up there is an underground reservoir,” she says. “It was fed by springs and was built after Patrick Brontë’s work on improving the sanitation in Haworth. We’re hoping to launch a fundraising campaign next year to create a centre for contemporary women’s writing there, a flexible space that could host events, exhibitions, be hired by creative people who want to write, hold classes…”
It’s an ambitious project, Wright knows – it’ll cost between £2.5 and £3m, depending on how easy or difficult it is to run utilities up to it, and that’s without taking into account actually getting planning permission… and what the rest of the members of the Brontë Society think about building on the land.
There’s another plan as well, which she says is merely “a glint in our eyes”. “Did you see To Walk Invisible? There was a barn in that, that used to stand just outside the parsonage. It would be fantastic to recreate that, make it a curatorial and research space, with an interpretive exhibition, perhaps…”
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