Sunday, 12 February 2012

A 'Middling' Experience: The Geffrye Museum of the Home

Twilight at the Geffrye Museum of the Home
Porcelain tea set, Jingdezhen, China, c.1750-1780
Executive Summary 
 From teacups to textiles, pets to petit-fours (actually, I didn’t notice any mention of pets… perhaps I should bring this absence to the Museum’s attention), the Geffrye Museum offers a glimpse through the keyhole of middle class English domestic interiors from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

A hall in 1630
Go There If...
...You’re looking for retro décor inspiration, or a meander through time that offers a genteel afternoon tea en route. Don’t go there if the niggling insistence on calling the middle class ‘the middling sort’ (in order to avoid anachronism: the term ‘middle class’ only came into common use in the C19th ) gets on your nerves.

Must-Know Info:
Address: Kingsland Road,  London,  E2 8EA  (closest tube: Old Street)
Telephone: 020 7739 9893 Admission: Free
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday and bank holidays 12am – 5pm, Closed Mondays

Housed in the former C18th almshouses of poor Shoreditch ironmongers, the Geffrye Museum opened in 1914, after the local council was persuaded by leading members of the Arts and Crafts movement to turn the buildings into a museum linked to the local furniture industry. The aim was to enlighten and inspire the local workforce with exempla of excellent artistic and technical value. Over time, the collection and mandate were widened to represent English domestic interiors more generally, and in 1991 the museum became an independent charitable trust, leading to new developments and displays.

Cutaway drawing representing a merchant's house, c1640
Curation & Interpretation
The Geffrye Museum has a very clear and coherent interpretative strategy: each period of domestic interior featured in the museum offers a wall panel with an overview (cunningly signalled to audiences with the large title: OVERVIEW), including a contextualising timeline and cutaway house drawing. Acting like hyperlinks from the main overview, you’ll find immaculately exhibited objects in glass display cases, audio stations for listening to extracts from related documents of the period (etiquette books, novels, etc), and replica items or material samples for you to touch (hoorah!) The imposing interpretative framework may suit visitors who want highly structured viewing experiences, but it tends to overshadow the possibility for eccentric and serendipitous encounters with objects. 

'Life in the Living Room', 1600-2000...
One of the benefits of the ‘overview’ room, however, is that by offering in-depth information, it forecloses the need for copious explanatory material that could distract from the reconstructed interior that follows. These reconstructed interiors are all ‘living rooms’ (parlours, drawing rooms etc) enabling the viewer to explore change and continuity across a single domain, though after a while you yearn for a C17th privy, a C20th suburban garage! The rooms offer two modes of interpretation side-by-side on a little stand: the descriptive (information about style, furnishings etc) and the anecdotal ('It is mid-afternoon, and the female members of the family have gathered in the drawing room. Mother catches up on matters of fashion and literature by reading her monthly magazine.’). And yet for all these 'living rooms', there is a tangible absence of life...
The Museum's paintings capture a sense of home better than its reconstructions

Highs & Lows
The curious thing for a Museum of the Home, is that it doesn’t feel homely at all. The reconstructed interiors - while admittedly beautiful and pristine - feel oddly sterile, bereft of the life, laughter and conversation of living, breathing inhabitants: a house, but not a home. Occasionally, a glass of milk or a tiny plate of dainties on a table hint in this direction, but they manage to look entirely calcified, rather than suggesting the imminent return of an inhabitant to reclaim their snack.  I realise that when you’re dealing with priceless original furniture and ornaments, you can’t invite visitors to lounge in the parlour with their feet on the table, and I'm not suggesting something tacky like wax models, but I’m convinced that one could subtly evoke a sense of lived presence nonetheless. Perhaps this could be achieved by using the odd sound installation - snippets of conversation, strains of music - or moderated light settings (they have appropriate lighting objects for each era, but these are merely on display) to create mood and convey how these affected the visual perception and mood of space and surfaces: the play of candelight on porcelain, a flickering gas lamp, or the more uniform illumination offered by electric light (currently the default mode for the whole museum). Adding an extra, sensory dimension to the display would give it that inexplicable, affective element that goes into making a house a home. 

Ugly, but comfy-looking velvet sofa, c.1928
More positively, the building in which the museum is housed is amazing and there is a great cafe and contemporary exhibition/education wing (when it's not the depths of winter, the garden is apparently rather wonderful too). I also really liked that there were spaces set aside for visitors to browse the library of related books, pull up a chair and read further if anything piqued their interest. There are diverse talks organised for adults (I was primarily at the museum for a lecture on Domesticity and Homosexuality in the Postwar Home, an event that is part of a festival tracing untold LGBT histories in London Museums) and great craft activities and online learning resources for kids. The Museum’s website is incredible, with a high quality interface for exploring the collection digitally.

The drawing room of an 'artistic' young couple, 1890
Best in Show
Don’t miss the etiquette and household management manuals – such as Mrs Beeton’s – scattered throughout the museum. And, in the more recent rooms, you can also trace changes in self-presentation by spotting the reading material (novels, magazines etc) carefully positioned to look ‘casual’.  My favourite period room was the 1890s drawing room of an ‘artistic’ couple (I don’t know why but it feels like the scare quotes hide a more nefarious reality), who have rejected mainstream taste for a heightened sensitivity to beauty in art and design. According to the informational panel: 
The ‘artistic’ young couple who live in this house have had a busy day visiting galleries and curiosity shops, and have purchased a piece of pottery from Liberty’s on Regent Street. It will be displayed on the overmantel above the fire. They are about to dress for dinner, and will then spend the evening at the theatre attending a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera 'The Mikado'. Ah, a couple after my own heart.
Loft-style apartment, c1998

Parting Shots
All in all, a somewhat 'middling' (defn: average, unremarkable, not at either extreme) experience, though unmissable if you're into interiors. Also would have expected a wider range of eccentric designer goodies in the gift shop...

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