Now reopening three years after doors closed for major renovations, it’s clear that east London’s Museum of the Home – formerly The Geffrye Museum – has been missed. It was first established as a museum of interiors in 1914, and its handsome façade, set back by a leafy green square, has long been a familiar site on busy Kingsland Road.
What’s less clear is just how local practice Wright & Wright Architects has managed to carve 80 per cent more exhibition space from its series of 18th-century almshouses.
‘We dug down into cellars, opened up roof spaces and stitched in modest extensions,’ explains founding partner Clare Wright. Most immediate is the new rear entrance opposite Hoxton station – fulfilling a long-held ambition – which means the atrium-like extension by Branson Coates in 1998 that once housed the café is now an airy reception space and shop.
It was, say the architects, a case of ‘turning the building inside out and back to front,’ and those familiar with the site might need a moment to get their bearings. Partner Naila Yousuf describes the undertaking as ‘like seven projects in one’.
The lower floor, revealed for the first time in the building’s 300-year history, becomes the Home Galleries, doubling display space.
These permanent displays, which include objects, photographs and audio recordings tackle topics of home in its broadest sense, from missing persons, child carers and single parents to more traditional pieces from the expanded collection. Each is a pocket of interest, from Victorian paintings to 1970s feminist posters skewering domestic gender roles and a 1992 Nintendo console set up with Super Mario on a TV.
For a museum that deals in domestic life, working within the buildings’ domestic scale always felt apt, and the site retains its intimate atmosphere. On the floors, lines in bronze mark the memory of the original almshouse walls.
Upstairs, the museum’s well-loved Rooms Through Time parade is 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 the chronological exhibit are almost diametrically opposed – you’ll find little overlap between the Victorian parlour, which welcomes guests to a séance, and a sensationally 70s set up (1976, to be precise) curated by the British playwright and artist Michael McMillan.
The latter is 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.
It’s clear that the feat has required quite the box of tricks. The architects even lowered basement floors in the pursuit of visitor space for the Home Galleries, ‘meaning what were formerly doors have become windows,’ says museum director Sonia Solicari. ‘It gives a new perspective on inside and out.’
The ‘out’ in question includes 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. All are now directly accessible from the entrance, as is new eatery Molly’s Café.
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.
A new Collections Library, which launches in autumn, will open up public access to the Museum’s extensive archives for the first time, 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,’ says Solicari.
This new one should serve the museum well for years to come. Opens 12 June, museumofthehome.org.uk
5 minutes with... Museum of the Home Director Sonia Solicari
Real homes are often messy and complex spaces. Whether we live alone or with others, they are epicentres of our hopes and fears, loves and losses – that’s what makes domesticity so captivating. 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.
Over the past year, we’ve been forced to think about our homes more intensely than ever. Our ‘Stay Home’ project, which collated lockdown experiences, has shown a greater awareness of things like light, sound and comfort, as well as our relationships with friends, families and neighbours. The role of community is surfacing like never before.
The biggest domestic gamechanger of the last decade is digital connectivity. Many of us have woken up to the possibilities it offers our domestic lives – our ability to work from home or the ease with which many of us can order online for home delivery. This is teamed with tensions around data and privacy and the erosion of boundaries between home and work.
My favourite new addition to our collection? I love the ‘Brexit’ egg cups by Harriet Cole. Boiled eggs are such an everyday comfort food but the message of ‘hard brexit/soft brexit’ is anything but comfortable. Homes are political spaces – these egg cups say it all.
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