Learning About Roald Dahl and the Archive

Posted by
Ruth Williams, Archive Assistant at the Roald Dahl Museum
Posted on
2:00pm, 19th October
Woman holding papers from Roald Dahl's archive

Ruth Williams, Archive Assistant at the Roald Dahl Museum, talks about the top things she's learnt during her first month at the Museum

I have been the Archive Assistant at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre for nearly a month now and I’ve done lots of interesting and exciting things already. I’m here for a year to gain experience of archive work before pursuing a career in the sector in the future. 

My role is quite varied and involves answering enquiries about the archive and assisting researchers that visit us. I contribute to writing archive summaries of Roald Dahl’s books so that we have a quick resource showing us all the items that we have on them.

I also help with cataloguing, creating the displays in the galleries and preserving the contents of the archive. This is the first time I’ve worked in an archive or a museum so everything is new to me! Here are some of the top things I’ve learnt so far. 

How Roald Dahl’s stories evolved

We have access to Roald Dahl’s very special Ideas Books (one of which is on display in Solo Gallery) in which he wrote notes that might one day be used in his stories. The beginnings of ideas for Matilda and The BFG started here and could have been written many years before he came to create each story. He went back and ticked and wrote "Matilda" next to an idea he had written about a boy who could move a glass of water with his mind. Similarly, he ticked and wrote "BFG" and "Big Friendly Giant" against the idea "A Fantasy" about "The man who captured and kept in bottles – ideas from the brain".

We can also see from the drafts of his stories how they changed over time until they became the ones that we know and love today. In his original draft of Matilda, she is "Just about the most wicked child in the world" with decent parents! It went through another couple of drafts before she became a good child with horrible parents. 

Deciphering Handwriting

Many of the items that we have in the archive are handwritten manuscripts and letters by Roald Dahl himself which is brilliant as they feel much more personal than typed pages. They show his creative process with crossings out, annotations and sometimes bits of pages stuck together with sellotape. They can be tricky to read though as his handwriting is not always easy to understand! Transcribing, where we make a clear, typed copy of an item, is an important part of the job so the more handwriting we read the better we become at deciphering it. Having transcriptions means that both we and the public can quickly and easily read and access the materials that we have. 

How the archive and museum work together

The great thing about working in an archive and a museum is that we can show items from the archive in the museum galleries. We work closely with the lovely Learning team here at the museum to come up with interesting pieces to display which follow the seasonal themes. The first thing that I’ve been helping to look for in the archive is material relating to our current theme of Roald Dahl’s nastier characters - Bogtrotting Baddies

Preserving the archive

Of course, one of the most important jobs we have is to preserve the archive in its current state so that it can be enjoyed by and inspire generations to come. Too much fluctuation in temperature or humidity and too much exposure to light can cause long-term damage to materials. We must always monitor these things both in our store and out in our displays. My favourite job so far has been inspecting the Writing Hut where, amongst other things, we do a bug check to make sure no creepy crawlies are making their home amongst all the treasures in there.