London: The Geffrye Museum

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After years of hearing about how great the Geffrye Museum was, I finally broke down and went.  I wasn’t doubting the quality of the museum, it was far more to do with the location, as I typically avoid East London like the plague, especially the hipster-centric Hoxton.  However, I found a friend willing to brave the mean streets of Shoreditch with me, so off we went.

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Even though the grounds are quite extensive, we somehow managed to walk right past the museum entirely, as we were on the opposite side of the road, and the directional signs that are usually on hand to point out attractions of note in London were absent (I guess they don’t fit in with the cool vibe).  Fortunately for my very limited budget, the Geffrye is a free museum, and except for a crowd of schoolchildren listening to a talk in the Victorian room, it was relatively quiet.

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Although the Geffrye is located inside a former Almshouse, it is devoted pretty much entirely to the living spaces of the “middling sorts,” (with the exception of the portion of the former almshouse that has been restored, which is only open to the public on the first Saturday of each month) which does rather ignore the fact that the former inhabitants of the building were themselves quite poor.  That said, I can see that most people probably don’t want to look round the sparse furnishings of an historically accurate lower class home, and it does at least mark a change from the emphasis on the rich and powerful in most historic homes.  The general setup in the pre-20th century galleries is a museum style room with cases of everyday objects and a sign showing the layout of a typical house from a particular era interspersed with a parlour done up in the furnishings of said era.  The rooms started in the 1600’s and progressed through the Victorian era, usually with two rooms taken from either end of a century.  Since I do love the odd bit of hands-on entertainment, I appreciated the cloth samples for touchin’ and the antique chairs for sittin’.  (I didn’t expect horsehair fabric to be so nice and smooth, though since Almanzo and Alice were able to slide off the horsehair upholstered chairs in their parlour in Farmer Boy, I guess that makes sense.)

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As the Geffrye is a museum of the home, I found the aforementioned diagrams showing the layout of the average home useful, as well as the descriptions of objects that would have helped to fill it, however, I think I could have done with more explanation on how each room was actually used.  Everything had been arranged beautifully, but a human touch felt oddly absent, and didn’t allow me to feel any sort of connection with the people who would have inhabited the rooms (assuming the rooms were in an actual house, and not inside a museum, of course).  For a museum of the home, it was oddly lacking in domesticity, and had a sterility that felt distinctly un-homely.  That being said, if you’d come simply to admire interiors, and document the changes in furnishings over the years, you’d be very happy indeed.

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In fact, the Geffrye seemed to actively encourage students, with an attractive garden reading room complete with mural wrapping around the rear of the building, and another well-appointed reading room next to it (which even included a book that I had been looking for when writing my dissertation years ago; nothing to do with the home, it was just with their general books on London).  Personally, I’d have rather sat and read in the early Victorian parlour, with its handsome blue couch.  The small former chapel of the almshouse was located in this section, and it was probably one of my favourite parts simply for its feeling of authenticity (the skull and crossbones bedecked memorial to Sir Robert Geffrye didn’t hurt either).

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The 20th century collections were in another gallery, and with the exception of the Edwardian room, which seemed very cozy indeed (this despite the heavy Arts & Crafts influence, which is definitely not my favourite aesthetic movement), these rooms reflected styles that are not really my cup of tea.  I know I’m probably a minority opinion, but I HATE mid-century architecture and furniture.  Clean lines and weird blocky furniture are just not my style.  Give me Victorian ostentation any day over some Swedish-inspired straight legged-tables (I will admit that most of my furniture is from IKEA, but this is only because half of it comes with my flat, so I can’t get rid of it, and the rest of it was the only stuff I could afford.  Believe me, if I ever come into money, my horrible, hideous, uncomfortable, blocky faux-leather couch is going to be the first thing to go.  I swear it’s doing my back in).

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That said, the ’60s-’70s room amusingly reminded me and my friend of the Brady Bunch house (I think it was the staircase), and the ’90s room was a little touch of nostalgia, what with its big, thick TV, and the nice collection of VHS.  If anything, these rooms felt more homey than the earlier ones, but that could be simply because they reflected a mode of living that I’m familiar with, so I could more easily picture how the rooms would be used.

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After finishing our tour of the galleries, we headed outside, since I had seen a sign on the desk saying that the graveyard was open (the rest of the gardens don’t open until April, even though it felt like spring already on the day we visited!).  It was very very small, and tucked away into a corner by the entrance gate, but did contain the graves of Robert Geffrye and his wife (Geffrye, as you may have guessed from his name, was the man who donated money to start the original almshouse), and three or four others.

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Although the Geffrye didn’t really cover domesticity in the way I had been hoping, I suppose there are a lot of other museums that serve that purpose, so the Geffrye does fill a more unique niche in the museum world.  In the end, I was glad I trekked all the way out to East London to see it, and would recommend it to others, though I wasn’t quite so enamoured of it as many other bloggers seem to be.  3.5/5


I was, nonetheless, super happy to be sitting in this chair, though I think the cushy Victorian armchair was the most comfortable one I sampled.

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