Home. It’s become even more critical, and interrogated, since the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic confined many of us to domestic interiors.
Our relationship with, and understanding of what we require from our immediate surroundings has been altered. The buildings we were confined to for the greater good enabled us to tackle these testing times as well as evolving into work and educational spaces for many.
So, as the summer of 2021 looks forward optimistically to the eventual return of some semblance of 'normality' within our homes, it is difficult to imagine a more fitting moment for the revival of an institution dedicated to the interrogation of the the notion of 'home'.
"The aim of the museum is to ask, ‘What does home mean to you?’ It’s a subject that’s both universally relevant and deeply personal."
Museum of the Home Director, Sonia Solicari
The former Geffrye Museum (named after Sir Robert Geffrye, who financed the original almshouses) was first established as a museum of interiors in 1914 within 14 connected brick almshouses which originally housed pensioners associated with the Ironmongers’ Company. The museum was extended in 1998 and 2019 saw its doors close for a £18.1m renovation.
Three years, a global pandemic and a name change later, the Museum of the Home welcomed guests through its doors once again on Saturday 12 June 2021.
Wright & Wright Architects (who aim to design beautiful, well-functioning, durable buildings whilst resolving the issues encountered on sensitive sites such as this) have increased exhibition space by 80% ‘We dug down into cellars, opened up roof spaces and stitched in modest extensions,’ explains founding partner Clare Wright.
The Home Galleries. Photograph: Helene Binet
The lower floor, revealed for the first time in the building’s 300-year history, has doubled the display space and now accommodates the Home Galleries which aim to explore the concept of home through people’s everyday experiences of making, keeping and being at home over the last 400 years.
These permanent displays, which include objects, photographs and audio recordings tackle topics of home in its broadest sense. Housed in a colourful sequence of domestic-scale spaces, a variety of historical and contemporary aspects of the home are thematically curated for scrutiny, from homelessness and immigration through to mental health, relationships and identity.
Remaining true to the museum's vision as a space to "reveal and rethink home together" working within the buildings’ domestic scale always felt apt, and these scaled spaces retain its intimate atmosphere. Bronze lines on the gallery floors also serve to mark the memory of the original almshouse walls, offering a nostalgic nod to the heritage of the building.
Front Room 1976 by Michael McMillan. Photograph: Em Fitzgerald
Upstairs, the museum’s well-loved Rooms Through Time chart the evolution of the main living space of the home which has been many things – a bustling hall, a formal parlour, a cosy living room. These Rooms Through Time are based on real London homes and their owners would have had enough money to decorate and live comfortably.
These rooms are now joined by a display of domestic objects that radically changed how we live and the evocatively-named ‘Room of Now’, which will invite creative figures and community groups in as temporary curators.
Two new rooms for this chronological exhibit are presented as diametrically opposite highlights, demonstrating the breadth of concepts ready to be explored:
A sensationally 1970s set up curated by the British playwright and artist Michael McMillan pays homage to the experience of African-Caribbean families setting up home in the UK in the mid-20th century, and forms part of a pledge to tackle domestic life in all its diversity via topics like migration, homelessness and gender roles.
Contrast this with the Victorian parlour, which welcomes guests to a séance and documents Victorian society's preoccupation with different fads or crazes, ranging from the collecting obscure ferns (pteridomania) to trying to contact the dead (spiritualism).
Gardens Through Time. Photograph: Hufton + Crow
Venture outside to meander through the newly-planted Gardens Through Time, where you can take in a historical Tudor Knot Garden or an Edwardian-style plot, as well as the museum’s herb garden.
These green spaces show how city gardens have developed over the centuries. They echo changes in society and the wider world, and show the fashions and innovations of the time.
At one end is the airy and modern Learning Pavilion and at the other a Studio, crowned with a new eco rooftop garden, which are to be the stage of a recently announced educational programme. One timber and the other brick, their addition is designed to ‘contrast and complement, rather than compete’ with the historic buildings.
Looking ahead, a new Collections Library, which launches in autumn, will offer unrivalled access to the Museum's extensive archives for the first time and act as a space for academic researchers, students and curious visitors while the very first Festival of the Home is set for September.
‘In a year when many of our homes have morphed into places to work, learn and keep fit, debating, sharing and delving into ideas, feelings and personal experiences of home seems more important and relevant than ever,’
Museum of the Home Director Sonia Solicari
Header image: Hufton + Crow