London Museum Challenge #9: The Geffrye Museum

April 30, 2013 § 6 Comments

The Geffrye Museum

The Geffrye Museum

This is another tale of a missed opportunity finally put right. Nine and a half years ago (I feel old writing this), when I started my PhD, I shared a house with seven other students in Stoke Newington. The bus I took into college went down Kingsland Road, past the Geffrye Museum, and twice a day I thought to myself ‘I should visit that sometime.’ I expect you can guess what happened. A year later, I moved to Paris for a term and when I returned to London I ended up in Highbury and the Geffrye Museum was never, ever on my route anywhere again. (Even if it had been, one law of London life that appears to be emerging from these posts is that the more times you pass something on the bus, the less likely you are to ever actually get off the bus and visit it.)

Now that I live in Crystal Palace the Geffrye Museum is once again on my route to somewhere I go with reasonable frequency (Broadway Market – and yes, Crystal Palace is a lot further away from it than Highbury, that’s the vagaries of London transport for you) and on the first sunny Sunday in ages, I hopped off the Overground at Hoxton and in all of two minutes I was finally inside the Geffrye’s gates.

1790 parlour

The Geffrye describes itself as a museum of the home, but it’s rather more specific than that. It’s a museum of the middle-class English home – to be precise, the hall/parlour/living room – from the 17th century to the present. (Though I guess ‘museum of the middle-class English living room’ is a bit of a mouthful.) The exhibits, set in the shell of an 18th-century almshouse, are arranged as a series of period rooms interspersed with more didactic displays that unpick various aspects of domestic life in a particular period. Among the many fascinating tidbits I picked up was the origin of the expression ‘burning the candle at both ends’ – rushlights (dried rushes dipped in tallow or grease) were the cheapest form of candle in the 17th century, but if held vertically their flame was rather dim. Tip the candle horizontally and light both ends, and it burns much brighter – but also faster.

Aesthetic drawing room

As for the rooms themselves… well, I’ve always had a huge weakness for period rooms (I don’t know how many hours I spent looking at the Thorne Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago as a child, but it must run into the hundreds) so I was in heaven. I especially liked how the curators (or designers?) took the trouble to make them look lived in with a few subtle touches – an interrupted card game in the 1790 parlour, a half-written letter in the 1695 one. My favourites? The 1890 Aesthetic drawing room (whose inhabitants have apparently just popped out to Liberty to add a piece to their china collection) and the 1910 Edwardian/Arts and Crafts drawing room (I am nothing if not predictable). The strangest – for me, anyway – was the last room, a 1998 loft. There are few things weirder than seeing something from the recent past treated as a historical artefact… even if, at the end of the day, that’s exactly what it is.

1998 loft

One of the best bits about the Geffrye – and the reason I saved it for a sunny spring day – is the garden. Or rather, gardens – they mirror the chronological progression of the museum’s rooms, starting with a walled herb garden, then moving on to a Tudor knot garden, a neatly clipped Georgian garden, a Victorian one and finally a comparatively informal Edwardian garden that echoes Arts and Crafts principles. Ideally, I should have waited until later in the year to see them in their full glory, but after months of cold and a spring that was very late in starting, I was more than glad to listen to the bees buzzing among the rosemary flowers, admire the fritillaria flaunting its orange heads and the tulips just beginning to bud, and soak up the sunshine.

Edwardian garden

Edwardian garden

I think it’s safe to say that this won’t be my last visit to the Geffrye. Especially as I no longer have the excuse of it not being on my way anywhere…

Tally: 9 down, 14 to go


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§ 6 Responses to London Museum Challenge #9: The Geffrye Museum

  • dianajhale says:

    Shame about the recent planning controversy – the attitude of the director has put me off visiting the museum again!

    • I agree what he said was deplorable… although I also can’t help thinking that adding to the museum probably benefits the neighbourhood more than a saving a pub that’s been derelict for 20 years with no sign of restoration in sight. That said, why haven’t they considered keeping the shell of the building intact and adapting the interior??

  • […] ‘museum’ has to be used somewhat loosely), Syon House falls into the same category as the Geffrye Museum – so close, but yet so far. What’s more embarrassing is the length of time I’ve been casting […]

    • Tel Segal says:

      Not really sure what you are on about with all these […] but Sion House is a country house with original historic interiors, the Geffrye is a national museum with fabricated displays relating to a specific aspect of British social history. There is no comparison to be made between the two.

      • Hi Tel, I think if you go back and read my post about the Geffrye Museum you’ll see that I was really just referring to it (and Syon House) being examples of museums which I had passed or seen from a short distance many times but somehow never got round to visiting. I’m well aware that as museums they are very different! 🙂

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