- Location: Kingsland Road, Shoreditch, E2 8EA.
- Type of Museum: Art and Design.
- Admission times/prices: 10am-5pm Tues-Sat, 12-5 Sun, closed Monday except some bank holidays. Free entry.
- Facilities: The usual restaurant and shop, a reading room, children’s events and adult workshops, gardens (April-October).
- Transport: Hoxton East London Line’s a literal stone’s throw from the station. Old St tube is less than ten minutes away and Liverpool St and Dalston stations are a little over ten minutes in opposite directions. Buses: 149, 242. Apparently there’s metered parking in the area, but it probably cost £2 per 20 minutes.
The main bit.
The name of this museum just makes me think of a zip-faced puppet calling out petulantly, but really it is a lovely genteel interior design museum in an area full of designers and artists. And genteel is very much the word; it’s situated in former almshouses which were once a home for respectable (but not rich) pensioners, and the exhibitions now have a pleasant, civilised feel to them.
After entering through the gardens – one of the few green spaces in the area – the few green spaces in the area – you walk down a corridor with room after room on your left, each decorated in the style of a middle-class London family from a specific period. It feels like being shrunk and put inside a time-travelling dollhouse, though a far better one than the stairless Barbie-on-an-eggcup chair ones I knew as a child.
My visit was the last day of the annual Christmas Past, Christmas Present exhibition, so some of the usual ornaments and foods on display were replaced with seasonal examples. I instantly felt guilty for once again forgetting to make paper chains with my daughter this year, though ours would no doubt not have looked anywhere near as good as in the ones in the 18th century room. Christmas trees were present from the start, growing in opulence until suddenly becoming a sad-looking twiggy thing in the Edwardian period. Were they really like that? They aren’t in the movies.
Speaking of the movies: one of the things I liked best was suddenly understanding terms I’ve read in books or heard in movies. So that’s what all those Agatha Christie characters were doing when they sat at the Davenport! It’s a sort of writing desk with a curved lid. My impression had been that it was a luggage trunk of some sort and the characters had itchy feet.
The 20th century has its own section, divided into decades. This one feels less like a dollhouse and more like a film set. Even the last room, a 1990s loft studio with mezzanine bed, is interesting, because you don’t usually get to view such rooms at such an angle, unless you can see through walls like Superman, and then you’re probably too busy saving the world to think much about interior design.
The extra bit(s).
I happened to visit on a Wednesday when the Almshouse tours were available (check website for times and days because they vary somewhat). The building was originally a group of almshouses, basically homes for pensioners, built with a bequest from former London Mayor Robert Geffrye – hence the name. The tour is not the kind where someone leads you around; instead you wander freely in the rooms, set out like they might have been two centuries ago, and volunteers answer your questions with extra information.
It is an opportunity to see little of what life was like for the relatively poor of the 18th and 19th centuries. I say ‘relatively’ because they were often former governesses or tradesmen and their widows and they had to be of good character, so they were genteel people but not gentlepeople.
The rooms are surprisingly large, really – larger than pensioners get now in sheltered housing, I bet. The pension age then was also lower, 57; the average age of death was lower then too, but many of the pensioners lived to be ancient even by our standards. They received the then-decent sum of £6 per year plus free coal and there was a spirit of mutual support, with the more able-bodied expected to help the ill and bedridden.
Most of their furniture would have been basic and Spartan, but there was one woman whose bed cost almost as much as her entire annual income. This bed and the tour guide taught me the origin of the phrase ‘sleep tight’: there are ropes on the bed and you pull them in tightly. No, not for that reason, you filthy people – though I guess it would explain the expensive bed – it’s actually to keep the mattress well-sprung.
The basement was where the toilets and sink – for washing clothes and bodies as well as collecting water – were kept. The drinking water supplied to the residents was so good that the residents had to be banned from selling it on for profit. Soap was taxed so highly that hardly anyone used it. So, smelly people in single rooms with chamberpots – mmm, pungent!
After the railways were built, Shoreditch ceased to be the relatively clean and peaceful area it hadeen when it first opened and became the most populous borough in London, full of notorious slums like the Old Nicol (now the pleasanter Arnold Circus). The almshouses’ managers petitioned to sell the buildings and get away from the costermongers, hawkers and ‘scarcely human’ children.
The pensioners got moved out of London and the almshouses became a museum and public gardens. They kept the name of the initial benefactor even though nobody can ever spell it.
I doubt those pensioners would approve much more of the hipsters who are taking their turn at being the area’s most prominent residents. I’m sure they’d all love to have a space in the almshouses – well, except for the fact that there were only 2 toilets for over 50 residents. I’m crossing my legs in sympathy at the thought.
The bits where you end up spending money.
The shop is small but well-stocked, with similar items to the V&A but slightly cheaper. I do wish I’d gone there before Christmas, but maybe I’ll remember next year. On this visit I restricted myself to a notebook, pen, pencil and one of those wooden ruler-rulers (with a list of monarchs) on it; my little anarchist puppy has now eaten it.
The café is, like most museum cafes these days, a comfortable place to sit and eat nice food, set in a room that’s almost like a conservatory. Devilled chicken (£6.95) was more adventurous an offering than I was expecting, but there are also staples like bangers and mash for the same price; the veggie sausages are actually cheaper, which indicates to me that they’re probably using decent meat for the carnivore version.
Stuff for kids and people who act like them.
Interior Design might not strike you as a topic that will make children jump up and down with joy, but that can sometimes be a good thing – days out don’t all have to be wild hands-on extravaganzas like the Science Museum’s launchpad. I wouldn’t recommend it particular for under-7s, but for older children there are a few hands-on items, a children’s trail and a free children’s audio guide, and if you plan your visit carefully there are lots of art workshops too.
I’ve taken my daughter before and she enjoyed it, even if, when later asked what she’d done that day, she replied ‘I sat on a chair!’