London: Gunnersbury Park Museum

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The Gunnersbury Park Museum in West London is unusually large for a free, local museum; upon arriving at the museum gates, it looked so grand that I wasn’t even sure we were in the right place.  It’s actually nearest to Acton Town on the Piccadilly line, though we drove and managed to park just outside the massive stone columns that mark the entrance.  The museum is housed in an old mansion that belonged to the Rothschilds, and the grounds are quite extensive; there’s a bit of a walk before you reach its imposing exterior.

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Like any local museum, the Gunnersbury Park Museum’s collections are eclectic and varied, and encompass objects from the Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow.  The first room was devoted to manufacturers in the area, and their product ranges.

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I was initially dismayed because based upon the museum’s website, I thought we had just missed a special exhibit on some of the museum’s best (and most random) artefacts, but I was pleasantly surprised to see it was still there.  It was everything promised in the description, with a penny farthing, maid’s dress, punch bowl, and most excitingly of all, a Victorian flowered toilet bowl, a freaky Robot of Death mask from ’70s era Doctor Who, and the “L” and “Z” from the original famous giant Lucozade sign in Brentford (you’ve probably seen it if you’ve driven into London on the M4, though the current version is a replica).  My boyfriend was really excited about this, though a bit upset that the whole sign wasn’t on display, but they just don’t have room to put all of it out; in addition, some of the letters apparently aren’t as “robust” as the “L” and “Z.” (My default is to say “zee,” as “zed” sounds silly to me, unless I’m spelling things out for a British person.)

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Another gallery featured an exhibit about the local shops of yesteryear, with cases full of merchandise that various retailers would have sold, divided up by type (haberdashery, toy shop, stationers, etc.).  Though I’m probably spoiled by the museums that go all-out, and actually re-create the entire street (see my William McKinley Museum post for a good example of this), I always like looking at old packaging, clothes, and photographs, so I enjoyed this.  I particularly liked the quotes they had from people who had visited the various local shops back in the day, and I’m sorry Mylo’s ice cream parlour isn’t still around in Chiswick (it appears to have been turned into an Adecco, grim), though I would imagine a British ice cream parlour of yore probably only had about three flavours (I’m basing this off the children’s bewilderment in Good Omens at the concept of Baskin Robbins, so blame Terry Pratchett (or Neil Gaiman), not me. (It’s an excellent book, incidentally, highly recommended if you fancy some light, amusing fiction)).

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Because the home was built by the Rothschild family, there was an underlying narrative about servants and Victorian family life running through the displays.  Each room contained a sign with a description of the room’s original purpose, and there’s an entire room about the duties of the servants (improved foot warmer, anyone?  I’d take just a normal foot warmer!), which I liked, since I’ve always been interested in the history of domesticity.  There were also some pictures to colour and a giant game of Snakes and Ladders for the children to play, though I probably would have played it myself if we’d had more time.

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The final room contained an excellent carriage collection (there weren’t that many, but as you’d expect, the Rothschilds had top-of-the-line, super snazzy carriages, so it was a case of quality over quantity), and a small display on the history of the house and the Rothschild family.  They were all bankers, and the British branch of the family helped fund the British government, famously loaning Disraeli money to purchase shares in the Suez Canal, and Lionel was the first Jewish MP.  I think only Lionel and Leopold lived in the house, but they all had similar names, so I could be mistaken.

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There’s a plan to renovate the museum, with completion aimed at 2026, and whilst I fully support that, and hope they can open up other areas of the house to display more of their vast collection, I suspect I’d probably prefer it in its current state; a dark, crumbing mansion full of echoing rooms with only a hint of ornamentation here and there to hint at its opulent past.  Nonetheless, good luck to them, and I hope they manage to retain the qualities that make it such a charming museum to visit.  Make sure to drop some change in the slot in the shop to make the “gentleman” raise his hat (it really does work!) and pick up some of their bargain postcards (5p!?  Yes please!) on the way out.  3.5/5.

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