7) Dennis Severs’ House: It stinks. This is a good thing.

Dennis Severs’ House.

If you’ve ever seen a refitted room at a historical building and wished you could step over the velvet rope to take a seat amongst the splendour, then you’ll like it here.

‘As you enter, they leave, as you leave, they re-enter.’ Bang the Egyptian knockers first.

  • Location: 18 Folgate St, Spitalfields, E1 6BX.
  • Type of Museum: Local history.
  • Admission times/prices: Mondays 6-9pm, £12 – you have to book in advance; Sundays 12-4, £8; Mondays following the first and third Sundays 12-2pm, £5.
  • Facilities: Just the museum.
  • Transport: Shoreditch High St ELL; also not far from Liverpool St. Buses 26, 48, 243, oh loads.

The main bit(s) Actually all the bits because there’s only one part.

Entry is timed, and you are given instructions on how to approach the house: it’s not a museum where you just read stuff, and you’re not to take photos (hence the lack on this post) or notes, because that prevents you using all your senses. It is true that mentally reviewing something too soon (like for a blog, for example) can prevent you from fully enjoying it in the moment.

You start in the lambent, luxurious lounge c.1780 and move forward a couple of decades as you pass through each room, enjoying an unimpeded close-up view of curios like the pigeon-feather toothpicks. You also notice numerous discarded objects: a top hat on the side of a chair, half-prepared gingerbread, a broken tea-cup. It’s all part of the conceit that the house’s residents are actually still here, just out of sight. If you’re willing to play along, you can almost imagine that this is true.

The house helps you by stimulating as many of your senses as possible. You hear voices that would fit well in a Jane Austen novel, horses’ hooves clattering on the still-existing cobbles outside, and church bells that at first I wasn’t sure were effects rather than real. Scent, too: each room smells different – all the visitors walked around taking deep breaths –  but, sadly, I’m terrible at identifying smells beyond ‘nice, perhaps a bit orangey, with candles.’

The scene in the party room the night before. They'll all regret it when they're tagged on Facebook.

When I asked the curator what the scents were, he said he wasn’t sure, but it was it was probably booze and cigarettes , as the family had had a party last night. The remains of said party – broken chairs, empty bottles, etc – can be seen in an upstairs bedroom, which is modelled on a Hogarth painting. Some of the scents would also have been essential oils that they would have burnt to try to mask the everpresent stench of nightsoil and horse poo. It was an odouriferous time.

Temperature is another of the senses (there aren’t really five) that the house uses to immerse you in the past; I could have happily sat and dozed by the brazier in the kitchen, but right next door is the literal Cold Room. This is the oldest part of the house, and unlike the rest it’s not a re-enactment site; instead it displays the (real) remains of the leper’s hospice that originally stood at this site and gave the area its (ho)Spital name.

The top floor changes atmosphere completely, thanks to the cooler temperature, the washing smells and the laundry hanging in your face. In this part the story is that the family had fallen on hard times and had to rent out these rooms to a poorer silk-weaving family.

A note on the table says that they’ve gone out to see the coronation of Queen Victoria, but the chair by the bed has a seated ghost, one foot on the footstool as he removes his boots, cane balanced in mid-air. Mind you, there’s a smart top hat on another chair, so perhaps he’s not actually the impoverished husband and perhaps that explains the unmade bed…

As the visitors leave, the curator says ‘thanks for playing the game!’ I’m not sure game is quite the word, but it is a fun experience.

Comedian Mark Watson. He might seem unrelated to Dennis Severs' House, but he was visiting and I unnerved him by looking too closely when trying to identify him. Also, this post needs more photos.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

Although the website and leaflet state that ‘a most absurd but commonly made error is to assume that it might be either amusing or appropriate for children,’ I don’t that’s actually an error at all. It’s not suitable for all but the quietest toddlers, since they’ want to grab and play and wouldn’t get anything out of it at all, but older children (8+) would definitely appreciate being able to be behind the scenes for a change. I did, anyway.

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6) The Museum in Docklands: Boats, bridges, and, um, a supermarket.

The Museum in Docklands.

This is the barge that the City of London Corp used to use for its Lord Mayoral inaugurations. I guess bling would sink.

• Location: West India Quay, London E14 4AL.
• Type of Museum: Local history with a big locale.
• Admission times/prices: Mon-Sun 10am-6pm, free.
• Facilities: Shops, licensed bar and restaurant, free film showings, family events on Saturdays and in school holidays, kids’ soft-play section, baby groups, lunchtime lectures and evening courses.
• Transport: DLR/tube to West India Quay, buses D3, D7, D8, 277, N50, D6, 15, 115, 135. There are also riverboat services and a paying carpark nearby.

The main bit(s).

Not falling down at all - rather too sturdy, in fact.

Although this is in some ways part of the Museum of London, I’m counting it as a separate museum because it’s over a mile away from its sister museum and it has a different focus. The museums are very similar, though – this one has the same focus on train-set models and sound effects as the Museum of London and is also arranged chronologically.
This museum also builds on some of the information from the main Museum of London. For example, the MoL mentions that the reason there were Frost Fairs in Victorian times wasn’t just because the temperatures were lower, but because the Thames was flowing more slowly; I‘d wondered why, and the MoD explains that it’s because of the starlings. ‘Starling’ is the old name for the many butting-out piers that the old London Bridge used to have, which were so large and numerous that they changed the flow of the Thames.

We've been to Button Moon, we've followed Mr Spoon... Add a Caption edit Delete caption

There’s not much bling at this museum; it’s mostly wood, in the décor and in the models, in the style of the river and Docklands that the museum abuts. You’re not allowed to sit in the boats, but you are allowed to sit in the pub (same as at the Museum of London) and a few other replicas, like the rocket-ship shaped policeman’s air-raid shelter.

Two of the sections, the slave trade and the sugar cane section, focus on slavery, immigration and racism. Some of it is an attempt to correct the erroneous impression that Africa had no history before the Europeans invaded; I’d have liked to see more of this, but perhaps another museum will give me that later in the year.

Various punishments for slaves who got drunk or back-chatted. What surprised me most is that they had access to alcohol at all.

Here there is a ‘Son et Lumiere’ show every twenty minutes; this turns out to be a very brief projector show. I like the second-person phrasing: ‘You will not speak your language, you will not have your own name, you will be sold…’ but I’m not sure it exactly deserves the name ‘son et lumiere.’

The extra bit(s).

Downstairs is the Sainsbury Study Centre, which I expected to be simply named after its wealthy benefactors like sponsored galleries often are, but no, it was mostly a display about the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain.

The Siege of Sidney St temporary exhibition was a lot smaller than I’d expected, but the objects it has on display – guns, lock-picks, Churchill’s coats – are worth seeing, since you can’t quite get that from reading a Wikipedia article on the subject.

The bits where you end up spending money.

The shop has quite a lot of fun pirate stuff as well as the usual rulers and pencils. There is a café with outside seating, but it was close when we visited. We spent no money (apart from the donation) but my little waste-disposal puppy still ate the events leaflet.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

It's 'buy-one-get-one-free day' at the Lilliput supermnarket.

Sadly, the chains didn't lock.

For little kids, this museum is ideal. There’s a soft-play section called Mudlarks which we peered in through the door at, and it looked fun; my 12-year-olds wanted to join in. For kids their age, there isn’t so much of interest; the only parts they really enjoyed were the replica shopping street and ‘Sailortown,’ which they declared creepy, but clearly in a good way, as they giggled at every strange voice emanating from the corners. Apparently even my own laugh is creepy in this context; usually it’s just my smile which gets that reaction. Sailortown also has olfactory effects, which, according to another visitor, don’t smell as bad as they used to. I’m not sure what the smell was supposed to be, because I had a cold so couldn’t really tell, but one 12-year-old’s verdict was that it ‘smelt like old people. ‘

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5) The Museum of Londinium, no, Londonwic, no, Lundenberg…

The Museum of London.

Yo, Cam-PB! Hi five, Phil Da Greek!

  • Location: 150 London Wall, Moorgate, EC2Y 5HN
  • Type of Museum: Local history.
  • Admission times/prices:  Mon-Sun 10am-6pm, free.
  • Facilities: Shop, 2 cafes, licensed bar and restaurant, lecture theatre, education centre.
  • Transport: Tube from Barbican, St Paul’s or Moorgate, buses 4, 8, 25, 56, 100, 25, 172, 242, 521, and loads of Boris Bikes.

The main bit(s).

Although I usually find this area’s ‘city in the sky’ architecture difficult to navigate, this time I was guided to the museum by the excited cries of small children.

Due to my need for food, I didn’t follow the normal route through the museum, which starts with ‘London before London;’ instead, I started at the future (see ‘extras’ below) and worked backwards. This works pretty well, moving gradually from the very familiar to the really rather strange.

Some of these worshipful companies are really esoteric; there were also Worshipful loriners and broderers, which some dictionary sites don't even know exist.

The tiny City Gallery has both those attributes; as the display points out, the City of London is the oldest part of London, yet has some of the most futuristic buildings. But the ‘strange’ part really comes in the Worshipful Companies, the Lord Mayor, the pomp and circumstance, and the status of the City corporation as kind of a platinum-card borough, with control over a lot more things (like the police) than boroughs have. Most boroughs also don’t have an enormous pantomime coach with more bling than a hip-hop club c.1999.

I think I'll stick to the shampooing, thanks.

This floor also houses the Victorian and 20th century sections, with a few small interactive sections like the pleasure gardens, a mocked-up shopping quarter, and a little cinema area with extremely comfortable seats. Plentiful seating is one of the pluses of this museum, which might seem like a strange compliment, but you do get so much more enjoyment out of reading displays or checking out a 3D replica if you’re not distracted by stretching your back and wincing. There are folding chairs at the gallery entrances, but also plenty of seats inside.

They thought bits of wood over a marsh was bad, but they'd never tried the Northern Line at rush hour.

Two other features are common throughout the galleries: scale models of the type you find in train sets (though with no trains) and the use of sound. All of the sections have sound in some form; for example, that Victorian shopping quarter has bartering shop traders and horses hooves, the Pleasure Gardens has birdsong, music and chatter, and, upstairs, the Roman section has strange people shouting angrily in Latin from a corner.

Mithras looks away as he slays the lion - he was a delicate little God.

This Roman section is probably my favourite part, and not just because the Romans always seem so much cooler than later invaders. No, it’s because, well, you know how some movies have cults operating underground both literally and figuratively, chanting in a monotone and worshipping ancient Egyptian Gods? Turns out that really happened in London, with the Temple of Mithras as an example. Some Roman Gods were worshipped in this temple too, plus a couple of local river deities – it was a pick-and-mix religion. Much later, that temple was rededicated to Bacchus. Yup, Londoners, starting out with spiritual stuff and then turning to booze, sounds about right.

I always wondered what these Anglo-Saxon designs were - turns ot they're intertwined animals, here a lion and a snake if you look hard.

From the medieval section, my favourite parts were the unexpectedly spacious and comfortable Anglo-Saxon cottage, the Medieval Game of Life on the touch-screen displays (if you choose to drink water, you die) and the information that the Viking who beat Ethelred was called Swein. Yes, I am easily amused.

The name ‘London,’ by the way, might well be the original British name for the area; the Romans called it Londinium, but they were just adding the inium bit. The Saxons later established an extra bit called Londonwic, and the Vikings renamed the whole thing Londonberg, but it always reverted to London in the end.

The extra bit(s).

Horseguards' Parade - with one teeny tiny difference.

This is the ‘future’ bit where I started: ‘Inspiring London,’ 14 pictures showing artists’ impressions of how London might look in the future, all photos of real places with just a couple of changes; the commonest predictions are for a frozen and flooded London and shanty towns right in the centre. The exhibition is intended to be a warning, not a simple series of predictions, but it would have been nice to see a vision as positive as the statement at the start, which talks about London as a warm, friendly tourist destination.

The bits where you end up spending money.

Royals: Racing, Solar and Egg. Wow, we revere them so much.

The main café is one of the first things you see as you enter the museum; even on a workday afternoon, there was a long queue, but a sign informed me that there is another café downstairs. This café did have a tiny selection of food, but I also had no queue and plenty of seats. Those seats are surrounded by a light display of statistics about London; apparently the average Londoner works 7 hours 36 minutes overtime per week, which I can well believe.

In the shop, I ended up coming away with some unusually cheap bath salts. The puppy hasn’t eaten them yet, but I haven’t been home long; she does have a taste for bath salts even though they make her vomit fizz.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

Even in 1300 (year, not hour, even though it looks newer) boys wre playing with toy soldiers.

Kids will like the audio effects and the scale models, I’m sure, but there’s enough interactive stuff to keep them interested too. You can enter and sit down in quite a few of the exhibitions, rather than just looking, and there are of course the usual museum trails and worksheets. In the holidays there are special activities for families, and, more unusually, the museum hosts a toddler group every Wednesday. I guess it is still a local history museum, after all, even if it is a little larger than they usually are.

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4) The Royal London Hospital Museum: Edith Cavell, The Elephant Man and Jack the Ripper.

The Royal London Hospital Museum.

The hospital in 1752. Changed a bit, hasn't it?

  • Location: Newark St, Whitechapel, E1 2AA. In the crypt of the redbrick St Peter’s church behind the main hospital.
  • Type of Museum:  Medical.
  • Admission times/prices:  Tues-Fri 10am-4.30pm, free (donation suggested).
  • Facilities: Small shop.
  • Transport:  Whitechapel tube/ELL, buses 25, 205, 243, 106, D6

The main bit(s).

This is by far the smallest museum I’ve been to so far, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I later find one to beat it.

18th century medicine: less effective, but much prettier.

I’m annoyed that I’ve never been here before – it would have been a much better way to spend the time between visiting hours or when waiting for x-ray results. ‘Better than hanging around between appointments’ sounds like damning this little museum with faint praise, but given that most people have phones and netbooks and ipods and kindles (and real books) these days, there’s a lot of competition for activities to fill dead time, so actually it’s a compliment. It is completely accessible for those with mobility impairments, as you’d expect in this location.

Women only got 'middle diet:' mainly porrage with occasional mutton. Everyone got bread and beer, but no vegetables.

The main part of the museum is divided into centuries, starting with the 18th, when the hospital was founded. It was one of the first voluntary hospitals, founded in 1740, though it didn’t move to Whitechapel till 1752. Voluntary hospitals were funded by contributions from the public; there was no charge to use the hospital itself, and it was mainly intended for ‘the merchant seaman and manufacturing classes.’ Right from the start, it provided for the main ethnic community in the area, with kosher food or money for it.

Free, aimed at the poor, with a focus on equality – once again I’m at a Victorian institution that sounds more progressive than many institutions today.

It was also, naturally, progressive in terms of medicine. When it opened, there weren’t many official medicines available at all, just really laudanum (alcohol and morphine, mmm), a few purgatives and quinine for malaria, which was the called the ague. I’ve come across numerous fictional characters who had the ague and I’d thought it was a sort of general unwellness, not a proper illness like malaria. After all these museums, historical fiction is going to make so much more sense to me.

Edith Cavell, nurse and fighter who was executed by firing quad. Wonder if she requested a nice cup of tea with her last cigarette.

Another section focuses on famous people who’ve worked or studied at the Royal London (which has been a teaching hospital ever since such things existed), and there have been an awful lot of them. Apart from famous medics like Dr Barnardo, Edith Cavell and Claire Rayner (yes, really – she was a nurse and did a lot for psychiatric and bereavement services as well as being earnestly sympathetic on This Morning), the most famous patient here was probably John Merrick, the Elephant Man, who died here in 1890.

Merrick favoured a really extreme form of niqab.

Merrick is also the subject of two of the videos available in the little seating area; the other videos are Casualty 1909 and a documentary about nursing training. I’d like to suggest that they include something about Jack the Ripper, since, as a display further back in the museum explains, some of his victims were brought here and examined by one of the first ever forensic pathologists.

The extra bit(s).

The display of photos at the back, all from the second world war, seems to be a temporary display so counts as ‘extra.’ I particularly liked the Nursing Sisters in their canteen, with linen tablecloths and waitress service even as bombs fell around them. Sisters and Matrons had so much power in those days – the Carry On movies were right.

Those circles are all where bombs fell. I have no idea how the Victorian buildings are still standing at all.

As I heard a visitor mention when he was chatting to the curator, there are extra bits – displays in the Garrod building and the nursing building – but I couldn’t find them and, frankly, it felt a little odd wandering around a medical school when I’m neither a medical student nor 19 again and hanging out with far too many medical students than was good for my health. Oh, and med students have been notoriously ‘sociable’ for a very long time – there’s been a student union here since 1893.

The bits where you end up spending money.

The shop’s just a few postcards and books, all reasonably-priced.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

Alex the X-Ray Machine, coming soon to a children's book near you.

This museum isn’t really aimed at kids; given the size and probable funding for it, lots of hands-on exhibits would be pointless. However, you can handle an old x-ray machine and some of the exhibits are gruesome; do those ‘urinary calulil’ really come out of there? Did they really cut people up with those? Did nurses really wear clothes like that? The friendly curator would answer all the questions and more; also, he looks like the Santa from Miracle on 34th St, which is always good.

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3) The London Jewish Museum: Hands-on fun, with a gold one for the Torah.

The Jewish Museum, London.

A play synagogue! I don't think there are any play bris dolls, though.

  • Location: Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, Camden NW1 7NB.
  • Type of Museum: History, Contemporary Culture.
  • Admission times/prices:  Sunday-Thursday: 10am – 5pm, Friday: 10am – 2pm. Closed Saturday, as you’d expect.  Adults: £7, Concessions: £6, Child (5-16): £3, Museum Friends and Under 5s: free
  • Facilities: Café, shop – both free entry – workshops and courses.
  • Transport:  Camden Town or Mornington Crescent tubes. Buses 24, 27, 29, 31, 88, 134, 168, 214, 253, 274, C2. Not far from the Regents’ Canal for cycling or walking if you, like us, are trying to be fitter this year.

The main bit(s).

Although the reason we went here was because of its proximity to a fish-eating-feet spa, this is one of my favourite museums so far.

Bathing for the vain.

The first thing you see is the Mikveh, an ancient stone bath. My daughter wanted to make it into a hot-tub, and, sacrilegious as that is, I wouldn’t mind it at all either.

The sign said that it was ritually used for women when they had their period and after birth, which makes it only a little less enticing.

On the first floor, the hexagonal Maurice and Vivian Wohl area has hands-on displays about some of the major Jewish festivals, an ark (we resisted the temptation to raid it), a torah and pointers, and loads and loads and loads of gold. Woah. It looks like a section of the Crown Jewels exhibition. At this point I realised that the (free) high-security cloakroom wasn’t just because the Jewish Museum is a more likely target for terrorist attacks – it’s because it has so much stuff that anyone would want to steal.

The only way is up, baby, for you and me now...

Some of the gold items are ‘yads,’ meaning hand, pointers that are used to read the Torah scrolls rather than sully it with your hands. In traditional Judaism, women won’t do this, but we saw a video of reform and liberal Jewish girls’ batmitzvahs, in which they wore kippahs (skullcaps) and shawls and read from the Torah just like the boys, only with all their bits intact. All of this was explained to us by a jovial volunteer who seemed to know several of the visitors by name.

This is the reaction you get when you taunt a growing girl with fake food.

The Shabbat demonstration area allows you to sit at the table and pretend to join in as the sky gradually darkens behind you and three stars appear, signalling the end of Shabbat. A recording intones the chant that is sung at the end of this meal, all in Hebrew except for the incongruous and wavering ‘have a good week.’ In Hebrew, this is ‘Shabuatov,’ by the way.

Next up is the history of Jews in England. Did you know that, in 1290, Jews were banned from England? I didn’t. Those that stayed had to convert, or pretend to convert, to Christianity, but they were still always under suspicion.  One of the good things Cromwell did was to allow Jews to live in England openly again, in 1650. After that, Jewish culture flourished,  originally centred around my manor in Bethnal Green, although, like many communities, they’ve gradually moved further out.

A lot of this section is hands-on, so is in the ‘Kids’ section below.

The extra bit(s).

Bet she was the kind of Gran whose old stories you really didn't mind hearing.

Downstairs, in the Joseph and Queenie Gold auditorium, there’s a display of photographs of holocaust survivors, not gaunt walking skeletons like on the History Channel but vibrant people with varied lives and lots of wrinkles. This is in aid of the upcoming Holocaust memorial day, the secular event which remembers victims of all genocides, not purely Jewish people exterminated by the Nazis.

On the top floor there’s a display about Moroccan Jews, but, um, I can’t write anything about this because we arrived too late due to Google bloody maps getting us lost. If I can face the long trek back to Camden, I might return and update this section later.

The bits where you end up spending money.

According to the Amazon review, you feed the dog kosher food and pressure it to marry a doctor.

On the ground floor, the shop and café are both open to the public without paying museum entry. Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop at the café, partly because we spent so much time at the shop. It has all sorts of little treats that you’d love to take home, like a ruler with numbers in Hebrew (words), cloth books for tinies, kippahs and hairclips, and a little measuring tape in the shape of a house; I bought one and my anti-Semitic puppy has now eaten it.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

A lot of the exhibits are hands-on, like a mini-kitchen where you can plait hallah bread and smell the soup.

Then there’s a ton of dressing-up opportunities, such as putting on the kippah and tzatzik shawl worn at synagogue. The tzatzik is a four-cornered and fringed in a precise way to remember a commandment God gave to the Jews (he really was very particular). Turns out there are 613 commandments, not 10; it was at this point that my daughter decided she didn’t want to convert to Judaism after all.

I wasn't even trying to look spooky.

I'm not sure what army this is from, but I'm pretty sure my daughter was wrong and it's not Nazi.

The theatre area also has lots of clothes to dress up in. I accidentally became the Dybbuk, a bride possessed by the ghost of a woman who died before her wedding day, who was a character in one of the many Yiddish plays that were popular for decades – the last Yiddish theatre closed in 1970.

At the Kindertransport section, you wouldn’t expect to get many laughs, but there’s an  open suitcase where kids n fill in paper slips suggesting what they’d have taken with them; my daughter included everything she owns, not really understanding the concept of a suitcase, and another child wanted a teleporter, which is sensible.

Perhaps she survived because she threatened the guards with this terrifying doll.

How nice of Britain to allow Jewish kids refuge just before the second world war; shame we didn’t let their parents in with them.

From personal experience, I know that some children did make it to England with their parents, because my step-Nan was one of them. She and her mother were sent to an internment camp like all other German nationals; I’m not sure what conditions she’d been living in before, but she reckoned it was like Butlins.

In the school holidays, the museum has workshops and activities for children as well as adults in the large education space on the second floor.

I short, I’d highly recommend this museum for kids, as long as you don’t mind feeding them bagels and chicken soup for days afterwards.

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2) London Canal Museum: Great info, but not enough boats.

London Canal Museum

Just before we got lost.

  1. Location:  12-13 New Wharf Road, Islington N1 9RT.
  2. Type of Museum: Transport.
  3. Admission times/prices: Tues-Sun (plus bank holiday Mondays) 10am to 4.30pm with late opening till 7.30pm on the first Thursday of each month; Adult £3.00, Child £1.50, Concessions £2.00.
  4. Facilities: Shop that sells cold drinks and snacks as well as the usual souvenirs, small outside area by the canal, workshops, kids’ workshops in the Summer holidays, canal trips at certain times of the year.
  5. Transport:  About a ten minute canal walk from either  Camden tube or Paddington station. At King’s Cross, there are lots of signs saying ‘London Canal Museum’ which make you think you’re almost there, but no, they’re just pointing you in the right general direction, up until you actually are near the museum at which point the signs vanish and you get lost.

The main bit(s).

Ironically, we only ended up coming here on this occasion because part of the canal was closed so we had to cycle on the streets and got lost.

This has been on my ‘must-see’ list for a while, but it would have been much better to wait till the summer, when they have canal cruises and more activities for children. Unsurprisingly, they don’t bother with them in January.  So we were seeing the pared-down museum; it was still worth the tiny entry fee and, if I’m not sick of museums by then, we might even go back in the Summer, perhaps after once more getting lost.

I think the Tenth Doctor did another Family of Blood punishment here.

Planning ahead would also have improved the museum experience, since they provide a couple of free downloadable audio guides, one to listen to in the museum and one that they suggest you listen to as you walk along the canal from the station (either Paddington or Camden – different audio guides) to the museum. It’s well worth a listen for the explanations about the lives of the boat people, who ‘certainly [did] not adher[e] to middle class Victorian morals as regards their personal relationships.’ It reminds me of the boat people in His Dark Materials, only with more hints of salaciousness.

When you first enter the museum, there’s a somewhat confusing focus on ice-cream: an exhibition all about Gatti’s ice-cream and a big hole in the floor leading to an ice pit. A later part of the exhibition explains this: as is the case with many small museums, the building originally served a different purpose, and this used to be an ice house.

That’s not completely unconnected to the history of canals, however; prior to fridges, ice was shipped over from Norway and brought to London by canal. It’s a bizarre image, a big ship full of nothing but frozen water, like the Titanic but intentional.

I wonder which did the distracting and which picked the pockets?

Next up is part of an old family barge. It really is extremely hard to believe that an entire family lived and worked in this space – it’s about the size of my bathroom, which isn’t palatial. One of the beds is smaller than many modern chairs. Fortunately, the people who lived there had so little food that they probably would have stayed very short.

Apparently these boy navvies are sitting outside a makeshift shelter. 'Shelter' meaning three bricks and a twig, it seems.

The info about these families continues above, with a small display about the children of the time. The little working boys all look like they have progeria, worn down by work at an age when kids these days haven’t even started secondary school.

The little girl's tied on to stop her falling in.

Atmospheric piano music plays as you enter the upstairs; turns out it’s from a video of an old silent movie and a Pathé news reel about the canal workers. I always love these things – the narrator is so patronising about the humble and honest people on screen and the old-fashioned accent makes it sound like a parody.

Further on there’s information about the history of the canals. The Regent’s Canal, the big one that the museum’s  on, connecting Regent’s Park with Docklands, ran into big money trouble while being built, and the govt of the time ended up bailing them out to the tune of £280,000, more than doubling the original budget.

It was part of the Poor Unemployment Act 1817 set up to counteract terrible unemployment after the Napoleonic wars. Imagine that – a govt tackling unemployment by investing in large-scale sustainable transport projects! Clearly we’re not returning to Victorian times at all.

The towpaths slope to make it easier for the horses to walk, and also, presumably, to drain away their copious amounts of urine.

The last main display is all about the horses that worked on the canals. These poor animals were so mistreated that, in 1822, a law had to be passed against mistreating them.

Some of the other pictures are poignant, like the one of a horse pulling a boat along while a tractor does the exact same job in front of him; similarly, in the archive video, a horse-drawn barge travels under a bridge where there’s a tube station sign and an early solid-wheel bus. Snapshots of a society being changed by its technology.

The extra bit(s).

There is a small temporary exhibition space, which on this occasion was filled by Tim Lewis’s canal photos from across the UK and Europe – presumably he has one of the larger types of barges to cross the channel. They’re an interesting display of the thriving canal boat community, and make me ever more tempted to look into buying one. One day…

Outside there’s a tiny seating area with pub-style benches; when we were there, a coal barge had stopped to unload – yes, there are still a few working boats on the canal.

In the summer this entry would have been much longer, with info about the canal trips that stop at the museum, but for now this is a short one.

The bits where you end up spending money.

I lied - there were boats.

The shop’s small but quite well stocked, though my pencil-connoisseur daughter said none of them were very good. For those who are craving ice-cream after the focus of the first exhibition, there’s a freezer full of them.

Stuff for kids and people who act like them.

A new twist on a Dear John letter.

There is a small play area with Rosie and Jim paraphernalia, but this is not the time of year when the museum focuses on catering for kids. The whiteboard upstairs indicates to me that they probably do a lot of outreach to local schools.

One trick the museum really is missing is having a barge parked alongside for visitors to step inside. I can’t be the only one who regularly walks along the canal and wonders what they’re really like inside, just how much you can fit in to a space which looks so small from the outside. The old-fashioned family barge is just not the same – I shouldn’t think even the most tardis-like boat is intended to house as many people as that.

By the information desk, there’s more free stuff for kids: some paper activities (crosswords and the like) for kids, some leaflets and a fun press-out, colour-in and put-together model barge. I took one, intending to make it at home and photograph it for this blog, but, as ever, my landlubber puppy ate it.

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1) The Geffrye Museum: Shoreditch’s Time-Travelling Dollhouse.

The man himself. The clock still works, too.

  • 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.

In the invisible string quartet, the cellist noticed something was a bit wrong with his instrument.

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.

Geffrye had enormous baubles.

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.

The sign says that this chair's supposed to make you feel important. Clearly it worked.

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).

This'd look right at home in a writer's garrett.

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.

They got all their heating, lighting and cooking facilities from this tiny fire.

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.

I twisted the bedknob, but we didn't get transported to Naboombu.

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.

They used lavender, marjoram and sand for washing. Kim & Aggie would be proud.

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.

I considered buying this for my ex-in-laws, but since it comes without a box it could look very, very wrong.

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.

Could really imagine burning Santa? Or even snuffng him out?

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.

You're free to pick this nespaper up and read it - or try to.

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!’

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