An exhibition that explores Canterbury’s rich literary past is opening this weekend at the Marlowe Kit on Stour Street. The exhibition is focused on three illustrious writers who had strong connections with the city; Christopher Marlowe, Aphra Behn and Joseph Conrad.
For Marlowe and Behn, Canterbury was the starting point of their extraordinary histories, whilst for Conrad it was the final stop of his well-travelled life.
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The Marlowe Kit is housed in the newly refurbished poor priest’s hospital – one of Canterbury’s most underrated historic buildings. The building has served as a poor priest’s hospital, a school, a house of correction and a police station. Most recently, it was home to the Canterbury Heritage Museum.
Working together with Canterbury City Council and with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Marlowe has completely reimagined its potential. In the words of Deborah Shaw, the Marlowe’s chief executive, the refurbishment has allowed the building to “breathe”.
The exhibition begins in The Great Hall; an extraordinary room of large timber beams and stone. In the future it will host performances, but it is worth seeing just for the medieval past it evokes.
Upstairs, we encounter our first author; Christopher Marlowe; or just “Kit” to his friends. Even those familiar with Marlowe’s work and his untimely death will find interesting details here.
An original Huguenot Bible is exhibited, illustrating Marlowe’s connection with Canterbury’s immigrant community and perhaps too, his fascination with outsiders. Visitors are also invited to try on an array of Elizabethan theatre costumes to recreate some of Marlowe’s most memorable characters. There will be plenty of selfie opportunities here!
Whilst the name Aphra Behn may not be as familiar as that of Marlowe, her story is just as fascinating. Behn was born in Harbledown in 1640 and went on to become, by some accounts, the very first woman to earn a living as a playwright. Interestingly, like Marlowe, she also worked as a spy! Her pioneering work fell into obscurity in the 19th Century but was revived thanks in part to the efforts of another great writer with Canterbury connections, Virginia Woolf.
She said of Behn that, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” The exhibition meticulously recreates the sort of study that Behn may have used to write her plays, complete with Restoration furniture. Visitors can even have a go at using a quill pen to get their own creative juices flowing.
Back down on the ground floor we reach our final writer, Joseph Conrad, author of the classic anti-colonial masterpiece The Heart of Darkness. Conrad spent the final five years of his life in Bishopsbourne, just outside Canterbury. The exhibition recreates a room from this house, complete with Conrad’s own collection of books. It is a wonderfully intimate and domestic portrait of a man most often associated with exotic adventures and the high seas.
All in all, this is a very fine exhibition. There is a good balance of information, interactivity and immersive atmosphere.
For those of you who hanker after an even more interactive and immersive experience, the Kit is also home to an Escape Room experience centred around Christopher Marlowe’s death. I had never been to an Escape Room before but, now that I have had a go, I will definitely be back for more.
With just a few clues, in a beautifully recreated Elizabethan tavern, you must solve the murder of Kit Marlowe. Now, you can’t get more immersive than that!