The London Toy and Model Museum was open for seventeen years in two town houses in Craven Hill, not far from Paddington Station. Appropriately enough, one of its exhibits was a Paddington Bear that once belonged to the young Jeremy Clarkson. As the brochure and ticket suggest, the emphasis was on transport and the collections included model railways of various sizes, including a ride-on miniature railway around a pond.
Also on show was a model Victorian fairground with organ music, and a working coal mine fourteen feet long and eight feet high, made by a Welsh miner named William Phelps. The model mine had been displayed at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924 and took Phelps twenty years to make.
Founded by two toy collectors in 1982, the museum was later bought by a Japanese Corporation which spent £5.5 million on refurbishing it. The museum had 120,000 visitors a year and employed thirty people. But financial concerns brought about its closure in 1999 and the collections were auctioned by Sotheby’s.
There are still museums partly or wholly devoted to toys in London. Pollocks was established in the 1950s and occupies a lovely old building in Scala Street. Amongst the displays is a large collection of toy theatres. And the Museum of Childhood, a museum with a fascinating history of its own, has been in East London since 1872 when it opened as the Bethnal Green Museum. Initially a rather diverse collection of objects with no clear theme, it began to become more oriented towards children from the 1920s, and was eventually reopened as the Museum of Childhood in 1974.
It can be fascinating to see how museums are represented in various media. Towards the end of the second season of the BBC TV series Detectorists, Russell and Hugh, two members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, are digging up a crashed aircraft …
We’ll have to wait and see what happens to Hugh’s plans, but the idea that museums are full of old junk is still alive and well.
A nineteenth century cabinet of ‘natural curiosities’
William Bullock (1773–1849) opened a Museum of Natural Curiosities in Liverpool. He brought the collection to London, showing it first in the Liverpool Museum at 22 Piccadilly.
Bullock then commissioned the construction of the Egyptian Hall, officially known as the ‘London Museum and Pantherion’, which opened on Piccadilly in 1812. By then the collection included ‘upwards of Fifteen Thousand Natural and Foreign Curiosities, Antiquities, and Productions of the Fine Arts’. Bullock was a member of the Linnaen Society, which was devoted to the study of biology, and presented his exhibition ‘for the advancement of the Science of Natural History’. The ‘Pantherion’ was a kind of diorama that presented wild animals and plants as if in their natural habitats, ‘a beautiful illustration of the luxuriance of a torrid clime’. This included a giraffe, a rhino, wild cats, monkeys, porcupines, and many others.
As well as animals and plants, Bullock’s collection included crafts, clothes, weapons, and works of art. Ever the showman, he organised a display of Napoleonic relics in 1815–16 and made £35,000 from the venture. Among the exhibits was Napoleon’s bullet-proof carriage, later sold to a coach maker and eventually bought by Madame Tussauds. The Hall’s contents were sold at auction in 1819 and it continued as a temporary exhibition venue throughout the nineteenth century. It was demolished in 1905.
Bullock produced illustrated catalogues to accompany his exhibitions, some of which are available online. Archive.org has a copy of the 12th edition, published in 1812.
Having seen the title, you might imagine a museum devoted to a single type of hat, an eccentric collector’s obsession. But as described in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the museum of Fedora contains rather different objects:
IN THE CENTER of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.
The building with the globes is now Fedora’s museum: every inhabitant visits it, chooses the city that corresponds to his desires, contemplates it, imagining his reflection in the medusa pond that would have collected the waters of the canal (if it had not been dried up), the view from the high canopied box along the avenue reserved for elephants (now banished from the city), the fun of sliding down the spiral, twisting minaret (which never found a pedestal from which to rise).
Mapping Museums is a research project at Birkbeck, University of London. Led by Fiona Candlin and Alex Poulovasillis, the aim of the project is to document the UK museum sector 1960–2020.
While working briefly for the project last summer, I wrote short profiles of a small selection of the thousands of UK museums. Some are still open, but many have closed. Some of my favourites are The Douglas Museum, set up by an admirer of Houdini, the Edinburgh Wax Museum, curated by a magician, and the National Butterfly Museum. Was the latter really a museum? Read the article to find out.
You can also see the full list of museum profiles. Many of them are very short, which reflects the frequent lack of information about museums, at least when doing online research.
North Woolwich station was once home to a small railway museum, but is now derelict. The station opened in 1847 as one terminus of the Eastern Counties and Thames Junction railway. It provided access to some of the docks as well as a connection with the Woolwich Ferry. The nearby Royal Victoria Dock opened in 1855, although the railway cut across the dock entrance and a swing bridge had to be built to carry it. The line was taken over by the North London Railway in the same year the station opened, and it remained as a working terminus for the North London Line until December 2006.
The station building was used as a ticket office until 1979, when a new entrance building opened further along the remaining working platform. Five years later a museum opened in the old station building, dedicated to the history of the Great Eastern Railway. The GER was formed in 1862 and took over the running of the North London Line.
The museum contained all kinds of railway memorabilia including a locomotive and signalling equipment. Although it was run by the London Borough of Newham, the Great Eastern Railway Society contributed to the displays. The museum closed in 2008, apparently due to financial difficulties. The collections were dispersed to various institutions, but the building remains under the management of a charity, a successor to the Passmore Edwards Trust. Unfortunately the owners have been unable to find a buyer for the building and today the station is clearly derelict. The doors and windows are boarded up, scrawny buddleias cling to the balcony, and paint is flaking off the rear canopy. But the fading signs of its former uses still remain on the station’s façade.
It’s been quite a while since I updated this site. I continue to make art but with a forthcoming project on the history of museums in the UK now confirmed, it felt like time to make a substantial change. I’ve redesigned the site to focus more on writing, and I plan to make more regular updates from now on. Watch this space.
The display of Rachel Howard’s recent work at the Hastings branch of the Jerwood Gallery feels like a strangely divided affair, the paintings falling into two quite distinct groups. The more compelling set, smaller in scale, are mainly concerned with the materiality of paint. Surface qualities are to the fore, riven as they are with cracks, rivulets and delicate black hairlines. In Lean To an irregular grid is abraded, obscured or partly washed away by other layerings, while the grid in Sleepless is disrupted like rips in a net, the loosened lines clinging to one another in places like the fine strands of a broken web. These are subtle and evocative paintings, and although they sometimes invite readings as vast landscapes seen from the air, those readings are resisted by the variety of mark-making and subtle distortions of their largely monochromatic palettes. For one feature that gradually exerts pressure on you is the subtle use of bright fluorescent colours. In many works they bleed out at the edges of the canvas, as if one of the first layers to be applied in what appears to have been a lengthy painting process. But in other works, such as Fall, the fluorescence glows softly through the … continue reading
If you’ve spent much time looking at paintings, you may have noticed they can change their appearance. A clear and well-defined image seen from a distance can alter as you move closer, revealing itself as a mess of brushstrokes.
Velazquez’s portrait of Prince Philip of Spain, for instance, which hangs in London’s National Gallery. The prince wears a richly embroidered silver-brown jacket. Every detail of the embroidery seems carefully picked out by the painter’s brush. Move closer though, and that fine detail dissolves into dots and squiggles of paint. From further away, an image. Close up, just patterns of paint.
That effect can also work the opposite way. When you first see this painting by Agnes Martin on a wall on the far side of the room, it appears to be no … continue reading