London Museum Challenge #9: The Geffrye Museum
April 30, 2013 § 6 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.
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