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.
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 the Fujita Corporation which spent £5.5 million pounds on refurbishing it. Fujita was run by Kazuaki Fujita, also a toy collector. The museum had 120,000 visitors a year and employed thirty people. In 1999, four years after Fujita’s death, the Corporation decided to close the museum saying it was no longer affordable. 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.