What The world’s oldest optical museum, established in 1901 by the first professional body for sight-testing opticians.
Where The museum is housed in a supposedly haunted early Georgian townhouse in Craven Street, near London’s Charing Cross station. The curator, Neil Handley, says the townhouse marks the museum’s fifth location in just over a century, during which time its parent body has changed its name three times.
Collection The museum holds the country’s leading collection of historic and fashion eyewear, and ophthalmic testing equipment, as well as probably the world’s foremost collection of contact lenses.
“Our collections also cover fine and decorative art, archaeology, ethnography, numismatics and natural history, so we are like a general museum whose objects relate to a common theme,” says Handley. Most acquisitions today are gifts from members of the College of Optometrists.
Some have odd provenances. “We’ve just been sent a pair of spectacles found on seaweed in the Outer Hebrides,” Handley says. The museum ghost is a Georgian man called George, who wears a tricorn hat and roams the basement looking for a woman named Mary.
Highlights Handley is enthusiastic about some of the museum’s unusual items. “We have the first spectacles that featured side arms – they were produced in nearby Soho. Before arms were added, spectacles perched on the end of your nose.”
The museum also holds the spectacles of writer Samuel Johnson, a pair belonging to the late Queen Mother, spectacles for chickens to divert their eyesight and a pair of the actor Matt Le Blanc’s “alien” contact lenses from the film Lost in Space. “We’ve lots of artificial eyes,” Handley says. “We are the only museum where the exhibits look at you.”
Help at hand One – Handley is a full-time curator, guide and occasional vacuum cleaner operator. Every visitor gets to meet him – he is even named as one of the main attractions by the Secret London guidebook (by Rachel Howard and Bill Nash). Handley does get help from the administrative team at the college, however.
Funding It is fully funded by the College of Optometrists. Admission is free; tours of the wider building cost £5. In 2014-15, the museum received a grant from Arts Council England’s Prism fund to buy two historic catalogues.
Visitor numbers “We get about 1,000 a year, many of them art and design students,” Handley says. “It would be more but for the fact that visiting is by prior appointment only.”
Sticky moments “The falcon that used to regulate the pigeons in Trafalgar Square flew into our building in 2009,” Handley says. The museum had to call in a specialist handler to remove it.
Survival tip “Put as much content online as you can – it is what generates interest,” Handley says. There are 230 pages of content on the museum’s website – “a more or less complete searchable database”. Discovering a ghost can also help to raise a museum’s profile, he adds.
Future plans “My long-term ambition is to tidy my desk, which is believed to have a wooden surface,” says Handley.
Louise Gray is a freelance journalist