Geffrye Museum

In Historic Houses, Museums on November 16, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Geffrye is a pretty weird way to spell Geoffrey. Or Jeffrey. In fact, when talking about it to a former boss (noted museum academic and a Professor) I pronounced it incorrectly, making me look like queen of the morons, and I’ve never forgiven the Geffrye for this. That said, I’m going to try and be objective about my recent visit…

The Geffrye is a free museum (yay!) of the history of interiors, and is full of a lot of period rooms. Nothing new here, I hear you cry. I disagree – the Geffrye was originally an almshouse, and these interiors are all recreations of fictional spaces. This is not as nonsensical as it might first appear – the point is to illustrate the changing tastes of the middle classes throughout the last two centuries, and I must be honest – don’t think I’ve seen this kind of approach to historic interiors anywhere else before.

You are presented with a chronological progression of rooms, with an interpretive room in between explaining what has changed in particular, and why it changed when it did. Iron appliances and decorative items in the home roughly coincide with the rise of the mighty Ironbridge Gorge in the late 18th century, for example. Wallpaper appears when pattern printing was no longer prohibitively expensive. This is all fairly logical when you think about it, but to see it all set out so plainly in such a clear manner is actually quite enlightening – an interesting perspective on a very common British theme. Also, they have replica chairs for you to sit in – they are the most comfy chairs known to man. I was *gutted* that the giftshop didn’t sell them.

What isn’t common, however, is a museum daring to be so very middle class. Not aimed at the middle class, specifically, but a museum of the homes of the middle class. Think about it – most historic houses are the homes of the aristocracy, to whom the phrase “middle class” would be a duel-worthy affront. The second most common kind of interior you find in museums, however, tends to skip the middle and go straight to the working classes. You get a polemic – the very richest and the very poorest living at either end of the fairness scale. If you see a middle-class home, it tends to be a)the home of a very remarkable person (say an author, scientist, etc; or b) closely related to something else, like an ironworks. They, unlike the proverbial cheese, rarely stand alone. Took me a minute to take this in and think about it properly, but I decided in the end that it’s a really good idea.

My only real beef with the Geffrye is that it doesn’t look deeply at its own history. It’s very up front about being a fabrication of rooms, which is laudable. However, I learned nothing about the almshouses or their residents, or who had this smart idea for a museum of interiors. That was quite disappointing – but I’m fussy like that. Apart from that, there’s the logistical issue of the entry point being the exit point also, which means a long trek back through the rooms you have seen to the start again, knocking old ladies flying as they stand and admire the china they once had in their own houses. Bless ‘em. If you can dodge them though, well worth a trip to Hackney. And do NOT miss the reading room!


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