The Beaney museum is set to trace the dramatic life of Canterbury-born spy, playwright, poet, translator and fiction-writer Aphra Behn in its upcoming exhibition.

Opening in Canterbury on Saturday 8 June, visitors will be able to delve into Behn’s little-known story to unravel tales of espionage, radical feminism and political bravery during the 1600s. Behn’s life will be told through The Beaney’s own collection alongside items on loan from The National Archives, The National Portrait Gallery, The National Trust, The Amelia Tunbridge Wells, Kent Libraries and Canterbury Cathedral.

Families will also have an opportunity to engage with the exhibition through dressing up stations and sensory bags.The exhibition is due to open just as plans have been unveiled by the Canterbury Commemoration Society and the city council for a statue of Aphra Behn to sit outside The Beaney.

Born in Harbledown in 1640, Behn was to become one of the most influential dramatists of the late 17th century and was the first woman to make a living as a professional writer in the English language.

Behn spent her early years in Canterbury and the surrounding area. She later began working as a spy for the English Crown during the turbulent political climate of the early 1660s, being sent to Antwerp on a mission by King Charles II and working as a political agent in the Netherlands. After returning to England, she began to forge her prolific writing career and her first play was staged in 1670, writing at least 18 plays which were performed on the London stage every season for over 50 years.

Cllr Charlotte Cornell, Cabinet Member for Culture and Heritage, said:

“The life of Aphra Behn is so inspiring and has so many twists and turns that it’s hard to believe her story hasn’t been snapped up for a TV drama!

“Celebrating her many achievements at The Beaney feels very fitting, being one of the many incredible women in history to be born in our district.

“It has been a pleasure working with the museum team to bring the exhibition together and I can’t wait for visitors to learn all about this trailblazing woman, who broke down barriers that meant generations of other women that followed could write, publish and make money from their own wit and creative talent.”

Canterbury’s Aphra Behn: literature’s best kept secret will be open in The Beaney’s Special Exhibition Gallery until Sunday 18 August 2024 (closed Mondays). Admission is free, with donations encouraged.

Find out more about the Aphra Behn exhibition.

This exhibition has been co-designed with collaborators from Centre for Kent History and Heritage, Loughborough University, Canterbury Christ Church University, University of Kent and with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Shining a light on hidden histories, such as this, is part of Canterbury Museum and Galleries’ commitment to broadening representation in its collections and programming and follows on from the successful Mirror Mirror exhibition, in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery in 2023, which was highly commended in the category of Innovation in Building Diversity and Inclusion in local government at the MJ Awards last year.

By Ed

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