A chance comment from a friend, recommending a delightful way in which to spend my last afternoon in London, revealed a hidden gem: the Geffrye Museum (136 Kingsland Road, Shoreditch.)
This museum occupies what was once a row of 18th century almshouses belonging to the Ironmongers’ Company. It was built in 1714 and is set in beautiful gardens. It was named after Sir Robert Geffrye, a former mayor of London and Master of the Ironmongers’ company, who left a bequest for its construction.
Described in the brochure as A place of memories, brought back through the displays of not-so-distant home life, each of the eleven rooms represents a different period in English history, and displays furniture, pictures, ornaments and belongings from each, once the treasured possessions of families long ago. Home is where the heart is!
The museum explores the homes and gardens of people from the urban middles classes, from merchants and manufacturers to designers and teachers. The series of eleven period rooms, dating from 1600 to the present day, represents their tastes and values. But the focus is on the living room, where the family gathered and guests were entertained. The displays show how these rooms have changed over time, how domestic life has evolved, and how furnishing and decorating choices have increased with the invention of new materials designs, colours and patterns. Many familiar objects originated outside England, from exotic places abroad such as China (porcelain) and Turkey (carpets.)
“At home time” today usually means spending time on a device, watching TV, preparing meals, writing, and/or, hopefully, reading. It was intriguing to enter spaces which revealed the leisurely activities of yesteryear, such as home decorating, various hand crafts and games, playing a musical instrument, and listening to the wireless.
The museum brings to life the many aspects of “home” through exhibitions and events held throughout the year. Every year there is a popular Christmas Past exhibition, in which each of the rooms is authentically decorated.
Last year the special exhibition was Swept under the Carpet? Servants in London Households. Each room displayed a board describing the way of life and chores of the servants in that household, and where they belonged in the scheme of things. During the 16th century, for example, they were included, and fed, as part of the family. As time passed, though, they became relegated to a more and more obscure position. “Below stairs” became a subterranean world of its own, as followers of the popular television series Downton Abbey will have seen.
Concealed behind a disdain for everyday acts of housework, and a desire that ease, leisure and comfort define our experiences of home, servants and their work are generally invisible. Swept Under the Carpet reveals that the drawing room was also the site of domestic discipline, hard labour, expertise and skill…Servants became vulnerable to the abuse of power by their employers. This potential for exploitation continues to this day, and is exacerbated by the migrant status of many domestic workers…
Food for thought, indeed.
Behind the building there is a series of small gardens, each also representative of an era, from the 17th until the early 20th century. Each shows the garden designs and uses of urban gardens – such as herbs for medicinal and culinary purposes, and is filled only with those plants available at that time. A truly authentic gardening experience!
The Geffrye is one of the most delightful – and evocative – small museums I have visited in the world, a special place to enter the domestic worlds of the past.
Enjoy a cup of tea and cake in the attractive tearoom.
Admission to the museum is free.
For more information about the Geffrye Museum, see here
A “bird in a gilded cage”? One wonders who is the pet: the bird, the dog, or the young woman?