As a brave new visitor after the third Covid lockdown, going to a museum, any museum, is a magical experience. I leapt at the chance to see the long-awaited redisplay of the Museum of the Home, which reopened to the public on 12 June.
The last time I visited what was then known as the Geffrye Museum, I found bonfires burning in the front garden and the museum’s Period Rooms thronged with people in what was essentially a queue from one end to the other.
This new incarnation has expanded visitor space, digging down into the basements as well as utilising the first floor of the almshouses, so that visitors can choose their route and explore stories in more depth. The expanded space gives more room to explore different ideas of the home, a place that is both universal and deeply personal.
We began our visit at basement level, but you can start where you like. First, we meet Nizar, a male Syrian refugee, who found a home caring for Pat, a woman with dementia. The opening photograph of Nizar and Pat by Jonathan Donovan prepares you to rethink what it means to have a home, how we make our homes, who with, and even what a home is.
These questions are posed throughout the galleries, starting with the wide range of places people make their homes in London: from a property guardian who loves her life in a series of unusual buildings, to a family whose houseboat has been their home for more than 30 years.
Homes are reflections of who we are. A film titled Shelf Life, by Mina Salimi, commissioned by the museum’s Faith and Culture Forum, captures this wonderfully. East London residents express their identities through their idiosyncratic and nostalgic collections of objects at home.
This is picked up in a neighbouring room, which displays objects from the collection mirroring how we amass things in our homes. A gorgeous – or hideous, depending on your taste – Victorian owl lamp, on open display and low down for handling, is positioned to split opinion. It is also a helpful reminder that museum collections are subject to whims and biases.
Widening the narrative
The redisplay has brought out many objects from the stores, including the museum’s extensive photography collection. A crucial goal of this redevelopment has been to widen the narrative of the white middle-class experience of the home, around which much of the museum’s early collecting and display was centred, to create a more inclusive and wide-ranging story.
This has been achieved through the use of magnificent photographic acquisitions, from glowing portraits of Hackney elders in their gardens by Sophie Verhargen, to Mark Cowper’s Ethelburga Tower (2008) in which we see the personalities of each resident coming through in the diverse decoration of their identical main living spaces.
At a time when we all know of someone who has lost someone to Covid, I was touched by Kylie Gourley’s The Missing. It documents families who have all seen someone close disappear, never to return home.
In these basement galleries each room is painted in vivid greens, reds and blues; scraps of wallpaper are mounted behind each interpretation panel and objects float like jewels. It makes it feel like the most beautiful home you’ve ever visited.
Interpretation is short and simple with clear and accessible labels, leaving you free to focus on the objects and photographs. This approach is successful, but at times I wanted a little more information and a few more objects. Trying to capture something as abstract, personal and multi-various as the home is a big challenge and these galleries work hard to set up a more complex perspective from which visitors can then approach the Rooms Through Time.
The Rooms Through Time used to be the Period Rooms, a firm favourite with many local visitors, and they remain largely unchanged although with updated, playful, interpretation. The Rhymes Through Time by Valerie Bloom and illustrator Kremena Dimitrova inject life into rooms I previously found static and hard to read. The story of Gus, the slave boy, is heart-rending and makes you pause amid the splendour of elegant furniture and soft furnishings. And a section on Women in the Home advises us to “sit and smile serenely” while a resplendent cartoon Lizzo performs on the flute.
The British playwright, artist and curator Michael McMillan has made a new installation in the chapel that promises to bring wider stories of empire – and remind us who is missing in this view of evolving homes over the past 400 years – although it hadn’t yet been switched on when I visited. He has also updated his 2005 West Indian Front Room, which tells the story of the Windrush generation who made their home in London during the 1950s.
Outside, Gardens Through Time were previously walled in, but now form a new entrance to the museum opposite Hoxton Overground Station and are as beautiful and sweet smelling as ever.
The new buildings include a bright and airy learning centre with direct access into the herb garden and a small event space on the other side.
As you would expect from a newly refurbished museum, it is wheelchair accessible throughout, with intriguing interactives such as a Victorian “cosy nook” – an upholstered doorless cupboard with cosy seats for visitors with changeable light effects from candle to gas to electric – and space to have your say around the kitchen table with Table Talk.
Here, visitors are encouraged to sit and chat. New conversational prompts will be added regularly and the museum hopes to make them playful or serious by turn. On the day I visited it was the age-old question: Should ketchup be stored in the fridge?
The first floor of the museum, accessed via a beautiful new staircase, has become a collections library with a new, fantastic “360˚ service”, meaning members of the public can call up books, records and entire objects to investigate. There is also a display of intriguing objects such as cut-out toy versions of the previously titled Period Rooms, telling the story of the almshouses themselves, of the museum and of Robert Geffrye, a slave trader and former mayor of London, whose statue still looms large over the museum.
The decision to leave Geffrye’s statue in place casts a shadow over the museum’s ambitions to be inclusive, representative and reflective. Curating in the so-called culture war is not easy, especially when the challenge of government overreach is a reality. Museum trustees were put in the spotlight when culture secretary Oliver Dowden wrote to the museum stating: “It is imperative that you… act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question.”
His interjection inevitably influenced the decision to retain the 1912 replica statue high on the front of the building, in spite of a public consultation in which the majority of local residents who responded wanted the statue taken down.
For me, the fact this figure of a merchant who traded in enslaved Africans continues to stand on-high, looking down on us, remains deeply problematic and makes re-interpretation very hard.
How we live now
While debate about the statue will go on, the redevelopment itself reflects deep care and thought from all the museum staff, architects and designers involved. It has also been successful in bringing in more diverse stories to the permanent galleries, reflecting the migration that has happened in the local area throughout its history. And the work continues with an open call for local people to engage on what should happen next in the Rooms through Time.
There will be a year of consideration while funds are raised for the next stage of development, but I am sure whatever comes next will provoke yet more discussion around the kitchen table.