Travellers passing through Leicester Square underground station in 1938 would have been able to see a museum exhibit. The Victoria and Albert Museum arranged three cases in the rotunda in the centre of the ticket hall, changing the exhibits occasionally. Although the items were not labelled individually, each case had a general caption with adverts for the museum and its evening opening times. Leicester Square was a busy tube station, with 1 million passengers a year, although eighty years later that figure seems relatively low. In 2017 the station had 36.7 million passengers. Anyone prompted to visit the museum by the exhibit would have had an easy journey along the Piccadilly line to South Kensington.
Other museums also had ‘shop windows’ at this time. Some had external windows on the street, including the Royal United Services Institution museum in Whitehall, and the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle had a display in a nearby hotel. Doncaster museum took a similar approach to the V&A, with a display at the city’s railway station. And the practice continues today. The radio museum in Kouvola, Finland, has a display in the town’s railway station, in the underpass between platforms. Just a few of its extensive collection of radios feature in a case with an advert for the museum and its neighbour, the Miljöö museum.
The V&A no longer displays exhibits at Leicester Square – the cases may only have been there for a year. Nowadays the rotunda is an information point.
I’m almost halfway through the first year of a projected three-year PhD. The subject of my research is museums in the UK that have closed since 1960. I’ll be looking at why they closed and how those museums were valued by staff, visitors, and other interested parties.
The first part of a PhD is usually a literature review, which involves reading as much as possible that’s relevant to what I’m studying, and I’m in the thick of that at the moment. So far I’ve looked at around 90 books, articles, reports, and other publications. I make notes on what I read, and then write drafts to summarise the topics and questions that come up. That’s resulted in writing over 50,000 words of notes and drafts since October. Eventually, what I write at this stage will probably get boiled down into a chapter of the final PhD thesis.
My work takes me to quite a few libraries. I’m based at Birkbeck, and I’ve also spent time in the libraries at nearby Senate House and SOAS, as well as the British Library and the rather beautiful National Art Library at the V&A. But mini-libraries can also develop on your desk while you work. Here’s a glimpse of what’s on my desk at the moment.
Last year Fiona Candlin proposed a number of candidates for the smallest museum in the UK. Size could be measured by visitor numbers, income, staff numbers, the floor space of the museum, or indeed the size of the collection. By the last criterion, Fiona identified a likely candidate in the Alfred Corry Museum in Southwold, which contains just a single object – a lifeboat. But another museum contains no objects at all. It has no staff, and has a floor area of just 18 square metres. This is the Raisbeck Dame School House in Cumbria.
Yet it seems that the smallest museum – classified by floor space – may be elsewhere. In the village of Warley, West Yorkshire, is a telephone box which has been converted to a museum. Warley Museum opened in 2016, and was recently featured in the BBC programme Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain. Seagull correctly identifies the phone box as a K6 model, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. The K6 measures 91 cm on each side, making it about 0.8 square metres inside. Monkman and Seagull manage to squeeze into the museum together, although the space would be more comfortable for just one visitor at a time. The tiny museum contains a display of objects, viewable from inside and outside the box, and an information panel highlighting notable people from the village. Surely this is the leading candidate for the smallest museum in the UK.
Another online museum that’s come to my attention is Conserve the Sound. It aims to preserve sounds that are vanishing from our lives. So far the sounds are mostly of objects: telephones, walkman cassette players, typewriters, and many more. I particularly enjoyed the sound of the heavy keyboard of Apple’s old tangerine iBook, circa 1999. Laptop keyboards have come a long way since then.
The first website was launched on 6th August 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Websites were text-only to begin with, but it wasn’t long before they started to use graphics. The Web Design Museum collects examples of designs from 1995 onwards.
You can browse by year, category, and style, as well as looking at timelines to see how the design of well-known websites such as Apple have changed over the years.
The Web Design Museum doesn’t have any museum websites yet, so I took a look at one example in the Internet Archive: the British Museum. Its site started at an academic domain (british-museum.ac.uk, now defunct) before moving to its current address.
The story of the Royal Architectural Museum, which was dogged by financial difficulties and had to move premises twice in the span of fifty years before closing at the start of the 20th century.
Since 1844 British architects had been calling for a collection of national antiquities. In 1851 George Gilbert Scott wrote to The Builder with a plan for a Government funded ‘Public Museum of Mediaeval Art’ and emphasised the necessity of such a museum for the Gothic revival, then the dominant architectural style. (One of Scott’s best-known buildings is the Midland Grand Hotel, the frontage of St Pancras Station. Another example of the style is Pugin and Barry’s Houses of Parliament.) Scott had been prompted to write partly because of the impending sale of the architect Lewis Cottingham’s Museum of Mediaeval Art. At the time there were three main collections of architectural casts in London: John Soane’s museum, another at RIBA, and the Government’s Design School Museum at Somerset House, founded in 1837. The latter museum was in disarray by the late 1840s.
The aim of a new collection was to reinvigorate the practice of Gothic stone carving by making sure that art workers had access to good quality examples. In 1852 rooms were taken above horse stables at a wharf along Cannon Row in Westminster and the museum opened that August. The museum included a school, run by Charles Bruce Allen, but it had only eleven students in 1853. The school closed temporarily in 1854 due to freezing conditions, before being closed down completely due to a lack of funds. In the meantime more rooms had been taken to house the growing collection. By 1855 the collection included more than 6,500 objects including 3,500 casts and 1,500 brass rubbings.
The museum faced financial problems including rent increases and the withdrawal of a Board of Trade grant, but it was offered rent-free space at the new South Kensington Museum (which later became the Victoria & Albert Museum). In 1857 the Architectural Museum was moved to first-floor galleries at Kensington. Still under financial pressure, the museum attempted to renew its Government grant. This was met with a counter-offer that the museum lend its collection to the South Kensington Museum and relinquish control. Although the museum’s committee initially rejected this proposal, they eventually relented and loaned the collection to the host museum in 1860-1. But it soon became clear that the collection was being neglected, and disagreements between the South Kensington Museum and the Architectural Museum led to a search for new premises.
It was offered a site in Bowling Street (Tufton Street from 1870), a return to Westminster not far from where it had begun. Donations of money, materials, and labour made the new building affordable, and the project was given a fillip by Queen Victoria’s agreement to extend royal patronage. The museum became the RoyalArchitectural Museum, and opened in its new premises in July 1869.
Continuing its original educational purpose, a school for architectural drawing was opened in 1870. As before the intended beneficiaries were art workers and lectures were arranged to encourage their attendance. Money continued to be a problem for the museum but the school did well, taking over the whole of the top floor in the 1880s. With about two hundred students the school was effectively subsidising the museum and changed its name to Westminster School of Art in 1890.
The building and collections were taken over by the Architectural Association in 1902, giving them new premises for a tiny fraction of the estimated cost of a new building elsewhere. But the collections were neglected. Architectural tastes had changed and the Association wanted more space, so the casts were transferred to the South Kensington Museum or dispersed elsewhere. Having occupied three different locations and weathered continuous financial pressures, the museum had closed for good.
In 1916 the building was taken over by the National Library for the Blind, then demolished in 1935 for new headquarters. Much of the museum’s collections remain in the V&A, identified on their labels as gifts of the Architectural Association.
Images copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, except the exterior drawing of the Museum from The Builder (vol 27, no.1381, 24 July 1869, p.587). [view at archive.org]
In one corner of the churchyard of St George in the East, Stepney, stands a forlorn brick building. Its roof timbers have collapsed, and the doors and windows are boarded up. Many walk past on their way across the churchyard but few give the derelict ruin a glance. Trees have taken root within the structure and perhaps this is appropriate, for at one time this small building was a nature study museum.
It was originally built in 1877 as a mortuary chapel, a place to store bodies before burial. Between 1884 and 1900, over a hundred bodies a year were brought to the chapel, and in some years more than two hundred.
In 1892 the Whitechapel Municipal Museum opened in a room in the newly established public library on Whitechapel Road. The museum benefited from a substantial donation from the Reverend Daniel Greatorex, vicar of St Paul’s Whitechapel. Greatorex had travelled widely, visiting the USA, Canada, the Middle East and Australia. During his travels he collected weapons, wood carvings, and a wide variety of animal specimens including snakes, turtles, and the jaws of a great white shark. This collection formed the nucleus of the museum, which changed its name to Stepney Borough Museum in 1903.
In the meantime the use of mortuaries had declined, and in 1904 the chapel at St George’s was converted into a Nature Study Museum and opened on 3rd June.
It was a branch of the Stepney Museum, initiated by Kate Marion Hall, curator at Stepney, and Claude Hinscliffe, co-curate of St George’s. Part of Greatorex’s collection was moved to the new museum, which became part zoo, part museum, as live exhibits were added.
Alongside the more traditional exhibits of stuffed birds, butterflies, and moths were live sea anemones, tropical and fresh water fish, frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders. One of the birds was an Indian Bee-eater found in a tea barge in the nearby St Katherine’s Dock. The museum also featured a monkey, although this had a tendency to bite visitors and staff. Outside were wild flower gardens, including a beehive with a glass wall, viewable from inside the museum. According to Arthur Mee’s London, this was the first municipal beehive: “We may watch them at work behind glass, and see them gathering honey from the bed of wild flowers planted every year”. The museum was intended to give those living in the city an experience of the natural world.
It was certainly popular. Up to a thousand people a day reputedly visited during the summer months, with seventy people at a time filling the small room. But war interrupted and then caused the museum’s demise. It was boarded up during the First World War, and re-opened in 1920. After the Second World War began it became difficult to get new live specimens, and many children had been evacuated to the countryside. The museum closed for the last time on 10th March 1942, and the remaining exhibits were transferred to the Stepney museum.
The churchyard gardens were restored in 2007–8 but the building was left untouched. A number of plans for new uses – none of them for a museum – have so far come to nothing. So the building remains derelict, the sign on the lintel a fading reminder of one of London’s unusual small museums.
Archival photographs courtesy of St George in the East; other photos by the author.
In the last post I described Henri Maillardet’s Automatical Museum, a display of automata. Maillardet worked for Henri-Louis Jaquet Droz, a Swiss expert in clockwork mechanisms. Maillardet’s was not the first such show in London, as in 1775–6 Jaquet Droz himself presented a Mechanical Exhibition there. At the Great Room in King Street, Covent Garden, the show comprised three automata and a mechanical picture of a Pastoral Scene. Such pictures had been seen since the early 18th century, with the first in London shown by William Pinkethman at the Duke of Marlborough’s Head in Fleet Street in 1709. Jaquet Droz’s picture was about four and a half feet square and showed a palace and formal gardens with fountains. Above and behind the palace was a grotto with many miniature figures including a shepherd and shepherdess playing music, grazing sheep, singing birds, and fruit trees which blossomed and bore fruit. But the main attraction of the exhibit was probably the three automata: a writer, a draughtsman and a musician, who played ‘divers Airs on the harpsichord’.
The exhibition was not cheap to enter. The five shilling admission would be probably over £20 today, but in 1776 Jaquet Droz also appears to have offered private viewings of the show for one guinea, roughly £95.
At the same time Jaquet Droz was also advertising his skills in prosthetics, having constructed artificial hands for someone born without them, flexible enough to use cutlery, ‘write with great freedom’, and manage the reins of a horse.
In 1798, Henri Maillardet decided to move his Automatical Exhibition to new premises. Business must have been good, because the Great Room in Spring Gardens was advertised as offering ‘better accommodation’ than the house in Howland Street, not far from Fitzroy Square. The new venue was also close to Charing Cross, a much more central location than Fitzrovia. Maillardet ran his ‘Magnificent Automatical Museum’ in Spring Gardens from 1798 to 1817. The Museum’s exhibits included automata of a lady playing sixteen different Airs on an organ, a child who both wrote and drew, a Conjurer, and a rope dancer. Maillardet also showed miniature automata in the forms of an Ethiopian caterpillar, an Egyptian lizard, and a Siberian mouse. He was the London representative of Jaquet-Droz, a family of Swiss clockwork specialists who also made automata.
Maillardet also exhibited elsewhere at the same time. In 1812 ‘Philipstal and Maillardet’s Automatical Theatre’ was open in Catherine Street, Covent Garden. In the 1820s, some time after the Museum closed, the collection was on show at the Gothic Hall in Haymarket, and it was advertised for sale in 1828. The child writer automaton ended up in Philadelphia. It was destroyed in a fire, but parts of the mechanism survived and were fashioned into a new figure by experts at the Franklin Institute.
This video is the best of a selection featuring the automaton on Youtube.
And here’s a very brief view of one of the Ethiopian Caterpillars.
Can a website be a museum by itself? Most museums have a website, but here I’m thinking of websites that call themselves museums without representing a physical museum. Defining a museum can be tricky, but the Museums Association’s 1998 definition is the one in current use in the UK, apart from Scotland:
Museums are for people to explore and learn from collections for understanding and inspiration. To do this, a museum collects, safeguards, researches, develops, makes accessible and interprets collections and associated information, which it holds in trust for society.
Although one might assume that a museum needs a building that can be visited by the public, there is nothing in this definition that says so explicitly. People can ‘explore and learn from collections’ while sitting at home browsing a museum’s website. So perhaps online museums, those that consist primarily of a website, could be rightly seen as museums. But it depends on which definition one adopts. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) 2007 definition takes a rather different approach:
A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.
Here the idea of an institution open to the public does suggest a place that people can visit, rather than a mere website, and this would probably be most people’s idea of a museum.
Recently I’ve encountered a few online museums that could be added to this list. The Prefab Museum was originally installed in a prefabricated house in South London. Following an arson attack the Museum has been mainly online, although it also travels around the UK. The Museum of Obsolete Media is the online home of an archive of obsolete media formats.
Both of these Museums have collections of objects, although the Prefab Museum is no longer open, and the Obsolete Media Museum is not open to the public at all. The World Carrot Museum is of a rather different kind: “The first virtual museum in the world entirely devoted to the history, evolution, science, sociology and art of Carrots”. These three online museums show the range of interests that can occupy those who make museums, whether only online or residing in a more traditional building.