Havering Museum is a tale of inspiration. It started life 10 years ago as an idea held by a group of enthusiasts who wanted to be represented by more than just a corner in the Local Studies library. Through sheer determination and goodwill, they have managed to create a heritage centre in the heart of London’s largest borough.
The first step was to launch the Friends of Havering Museum and recruit the support of the local council. The next step was to convince the Heritage Lottery Fund that the idea deserved support. The final step was to find the mix of people who could make things happen to a professional standard.
Although passionate about local history, the group did not have any members with experience of running a museum. A tender process put them in contact with David McCabe, a London-based designer with a track record in successful heritage projects. He was able to introduce the Friends to a network of specialists who work in the heritage sector.
The result is a museum that is welcoming, bright and spacious. It is located within part of the old Ind Coope brewery, a Victorian building that has been empty since the brewery closed in 1993.
The public areas are on one level for easy access, and include galleries, a learning centre and the all-important shop. Original architectural features, such as pillars and windows, have been incorporated into the overall plan.
The main gallery introduces visitors to the five main areas that make up the borough: Havering-atte-Bower, Romford, Upminster, Rainham and Hornchurch.
Each area is represented by a freestanding “pod”, while themes that link the areas (such as gardening, transport and war) are explored in a sequence of displays around the perimeter.
A smaller gallery looks at industry and manufacturing, both of which have been central to the economic growth of the borough.
Physically, the pods consist of a cleverly designed combination of showcase, drawers, study table, multimedia touchscreen and low-tech interactives, all incorporated into a single unit. This system is flexible enough to be easily updated and suitable for a range of materials.
Light-sensitive objects can be mounted in drawers, while more robust items are on permanent display. Table edges are rounded to soften the space, encouraging visitors to sit and discover things together.
The museum website promises to define “what makes Havering Havering”, and to celebrate “the achievements of local people, past and present”.
The content of the pods is intended to provide each area with a unique identity. This is an attempt to show not just “what makes Havering Havering”, but also “what makes Upminster Upminster” and “what makes Romford Romford”.
The answer, of course, is that local identity is made up of a complex mix of factors, both tangible and intangible. While Havering-atte-Bower can be linked to Roman Britain via an exquisite gold and cornelian ring, Rainham boasts the ceremonial remains of an Anglo-Saxon burial, and Upminster can sing the praises of local boy made good, the late rock star Ian Dury.
The challenge with curating such diverse content is to ensure the interpretation pulls together seemingly random facts and objects into a well-considered whole. I felt it was most successful when the content referred to local stories.
For example, I was interested to learn about the Rev Joseph Hardwick Pemberton (1854-1926), a local curate and world-renowned rose expert who was the first person to cultivate the hybrid musk rose.
It was weaker where labels occasionally omitted details about local relevance. I was puzzled by the label of an 1850s dress that would have been perfect in the Victoria and Albert Museum with its details about fabric and design, but which made no reference to the neighbourhood. I was left wondering whether it was made by a local seamstress or worn by an important dignitary.
As well as amassing a collection of its own, the team has been able to negotiate some important loans. This is the first time these artefacts have been brought “home” and shown together in a single venue.
This local context invests the objects with a layer of meaning, which gives them added significance. The Havering Ring, on loan from the British Museum, is given pride of place as an important piece of treasure.
In the vast halls of the British Museum, on the other hand, it was just one of thousands of jewels vying for attention. Judging by the graphic panels, the target audience is educated older people with the time and inclination for reflection. The text is longer than normal practice, and images and captions are crammed together, requiring relatively high levels of concentration.
When I visited, I stalked a couple that fitted the bill perfectly. They read every word, opened every drawer and reminisced about railways and long-gone pubs. What I didn’t see was much evidence of the diversity of the local population encountered in the streets outside.
A wonderful sepia photograph of a platoon of Sikh troops on the platform at Romford station during the first world war begs the question as to what became of these soldiers.
Perhaps part of Havering’s story is that there are still many holes in our knowledge, but this could be turned to the museum’s advantage by encouraging visitors to leave their reminiscences and fill some of the gaps.
None of these comments should detract from the huge effort that has obviously gone into the project. A museum is more than just a collection of objects and facts, and I understand that the next phase of development is to increase visitor numbers through programming, and to make the organisation financially sustainable through careful business planning.
As long as the content continues to flourish, this is a museum with the potential to be taken into the heart of the community for generations to come.
Maria Blyzinsky is a freelance exhibitions consultant and co-founder of The Exhibitions Team
Main funder Heritage Lottery Fund £990,000
Architectural design TTSP Architects
3D exhibition design David McCabe Design (Aaron Jones)
Graphics Jackie Baines Studio
Lighting Lux Lucis Lighting
Audiovisuals Redbrick Pictures
Display cases Armour Systems