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J.R.R. Tolkien in Staffordshire: touring exhibition

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Library news, Outcome: culture

Graphic of a hand print, 2 music notes and paint splotches. The culture icon for Libraries Deliver.[Editor’s note: Scott Whitehouse, of Staffordshire Library and Arts Service, writes about their project which explored the connections the famous author had with Staffordshire. The project won the PPRG Bronze Marketing Excellence Award 2018 (PPRG is CILIP’s publicity and public relations group)]

In 2009 I discovered that J.R.R. Tolkien was stationed near Penkridge, Staffordshire, during the Great War. As a young army officer Tolkien was billeted on Cannock Chase where he wrote poetry, including some of the first in his created elvish languages. He returned to convalesce in Great Haywood, Staffordshire after contracting trench fever during the Battle of the Somme and it was then that he first put into prose some of his mythological stories – The Fall of Gondolin and The Cottage of Lost Play. These stories would later appear in the posthumously published Book of Lost Tales, but were critical in his development of what became Middle-earth and the more familiar stories of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Photo of a pile of Tolkien’s books
A selection of Tolkien’s works. Photo credit: Staffordshire Library and Arts

In 2012 I met David Robbie, local historian and member of the Haywood Society – a small group concerned with promoting the heritage of that area. We collaborated on the Staffordshire Tolkien Trail – a colourful guidebook, detailing the history of Tolkien’s connections with Staffordshire, maps with suggested walking routes to visit these locations and a detailed chronology of Tolkien’s time in the county.

The project begins

As the centenary of the Great War approached and Staffordshire County Council looked to support and coordinate efforts in the county, we began to consider the idea of a touring exhibition.

Our primary tasks were to:

  • develop a £10,000 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) ‘Then and Now’ application for a touring exhibition that would visit libraries and museums
  • develop a style palette and publicity plan to engage people of all ages and offer them an understanding and appreciation of the 'Tolkien in Staffordshire' story

Our objectives were to:

  • to create and promote a heritage offer in smaller communities where there is traditionally less opportunity to access museum quality exhibitions
  • to promote the opportunity for people to get 'hands-on' history with artefacts, to participate in creative art activities and to offer a chance to interact with re-enactors, historians and enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff and volunteers
  • to engage with volunteers
  • to attract new visitors to libraries as part of our service’s contribution to the Staffordshire County Council Great War Centenary plan
  • to investigate and develop new partnership opportunities

We developed the Heritage Lottery Fund application in 2015 with Staffordshire Library and Arts and the Museum of Cannock Chase offering ‘support in kind’ to the application. The bid was successful and funds were made available for a March 2016 launch.

The initial tour plan had 9 main locations around Cannock Chase. We expanded this in response to demand. There are now, 22 venues confirmed until the end of 2018.

To encourage volunteer engagement we used press releases, posters and social media locally and from amongst existing library and museum volunteers. We also used the University of Leicester’s free advertising facility to engage those with a professional interest.

Exhibition design

We worked with a graphic designer who was able to transform the content we created to create an attractive colour/design palette which would be used across the banners, promotional materials and posters to offer consistency and a professional appearance. Logos and acknowledgements of partners were agreed and their positioning on all template promotional material and exhibition contents was standardised.

Use of images was critical to our plan for a highly visual exhibition and permissions to use photographs, art work, quotes and book covers were sought. Many images were free to use, or available for a fee, so long as permission was sought and proper referencing guidelines followed to ensure copyright was respected. We sourced from the Imperial War Museum, HarperCollins Publishers, and National Archives. The Tolkien Estate kindly allowed use of several photographs and original sketches made by Tolkien while in Staffordshire that were essential to the exhibition.

Publicity plan: #Tolkien

To maintain consistency I supplied each venue and our communications team with a package of materials for use in their own local publicity. This included generic press releases, images, logos, empty belly style posters/flyers, an exhibition guide and social media guidelines.

We decided to use the hashtag phrase #Tolkien in #Staffordshire on all social media and link to accounts that might retweet to followers.

To keep the social media fresh opportunities for new photographic images or news stories were taken to evidence engagement. This often included anecdotal/fun images such as of the Tolkien mannequin being carried into a venue, the exhibition mid-assembly or the arrival of the original Tolkien sketches from the Bodleian Library.

Photo of a man holding a dummy of a man dressed in a soldiers uniform from World War One.
Tolkien on the move to Hednesford. Photo credit: Staffordshire Library and Arts

We also linked with Staffordshire Great War to promote the exhibition tour, events and additional information and news stories. The site will be archived with the British Library digital archive, thus preserving the contents as part of the legacy of the project.

The social media response has been huge and the exhibition has generated some of Staffordshire Libraries’ top Facebook and Twitter posts. A search of #Tolkien in #Staffordshire on Twitter gives an example of the extent of engagement.


  • over 250,000 visitors at 20 venues
  • 14 schools
  • 12 art/craft workshops for children/families
  • David Robbie has delivered talks to 320 people
  • 7 Tolkien Trail guided walks have taken place engaging over 180 people
  • 25 volunteers recruited and 704 volunteering hours undertaken
Photo of a young boy handling items in the exhibition. He is holding a rifle while an older man dressed in a soldiers uniform from World War One puts an armoured hat on his head.
Handling items in the exhibition. Photo credit: Staffordshire Library and Arts

Partnerships and feedback

The project offered lots of opportunities to work in partnership. Specific elements included:

  • working with the Friends of Cannock Chase on a HLF funded project on the Great War linking with New Zealand author, Peter Millett
  • working with Imagineer Productions’ Arts Council funded project in Staffordshire called War Bride, linking with the war time experience of Edith Tolkien.
  • a link with the Bodleian Library which included an invitation for David and me to the VIP launch of the Tolkien – Maker of Middle-earth exhibition in May 2018

We have raised the profile of the ‘Tolkien in Staffordshire’ story by hosting visits from important Tolkien scholars, Professor Nils Ivar Agoy, Magne Bergland, John Garth, (Tolkien’s biographer of the Great War period) and Michael Flowers, (researcher into Tolkien’s time in Yorkshire in 1917). David has also spoken at seminars and conferences in the UK and Germany demonstrating the interest in this project.

Over a thousand forms of positive feedback have been received, many with ‘I never knew that…’ type comments, which was exactly the outcome we were looking for. Comments include:

  • What a thought-provoking exhibition – informative, touching, and rich with evocative images. I love the sense of passion and craft behind it all! (John Garth, Tolkien biographer and author of Tolkien and the Great War)
  • I am very impressed with the success of the project and this is clearly in no small part down to the hard work of yourself and the other volunteers on your team. It goes to show that a relatively small grant award can go a long way and reach a large number of people engaging them with heritage. It also came across how much people enjoyed themselves along the way (both project team and exhibition visitors) which is lovely to see. Well done to all involved! (Simon Lewis, HLF)
  • Wonderfully informative, particularly in linking Tolkien’s real-life experiences to the stories he wrote. Thank you (Public comment)
  • Astonished by the quality and impressed by all the detailed and varied information. It couldn’t be any better than this! (Public comment)
  • A very interesting exhibition, which must have involved a great deal of effort from all those included. Great to see so many different groups/schools/individuals contributions. Thank you. (Public comment)
Photo of members of Perton Primary Academy visiting the exhibition
Members of Perton Primary Academy visit the exhibition. Photo credit: Staffordshire Library and Arts

The future

The tour continues, with venues already contacting us for 2019, including the Tolkien Society Conference in Birmingham in August 2019.

In addition we are beginning to explore partnership opportunities with Birmingham Museums to link with the better known Tolkien site: Sarehole Mill.

To keep up to date with activities in Staffordshire libraries, follow them on twitter, facebook, or take a look at their webpages.


Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Chris Plant posted on

    Great article Scott. Really informative and good to see some solid outcomes from this piece of work.