Museum as experience
The Geffrye Museum, just down the road from where I was staying in London, is by far the best small museum I’ve seen for a long time. Housed in the Geffrye Ironmongers’ Almshouses, it traces the history of ‘the home’ from the 1990s back 400-odd years. Through a series of Period Rooms, the ways the ‘middling sort’ lived and worked in their houses is explored. This is great history. I loved it because it is right up my alley (history of ordinary people), it was beautifully and simply arranged (a long straight passageway – no complicated flows), it allowed you to be engaged at a aesthetic level (just appreciating the beauty of the rooms), an interest level (reading a bit about what you were seeing from a hand-held paddle) or a fairly rigorous academic level (listening to the brilliant audio guide and reading the information provided in the adjoining section for each Period Room). Or, of course, a mixture of all three. I read, listened to and looked at everything – which is unusual for me; there are usually things I feel are safe to skip or not interesting enough or badly written.
It was also a great space to be in. There were children of various ages on school trips being engaged by very good museum educators, there were people walking through to get to the (very good) cafe and there were standard museum visitors. There were also clearly people working there – you know, walking around, talking about displays, working with students. It wasn’t a dead mausoleum-like museum where you never see anyone that isn’t a security guard.
Besides this glowing review that I’m giving it (and I could go on but you should really go and see it for yourself), what struck me was the way they seem to be approaching the museum as a part of the community, somewhere to come and be, sit, stay, look at displays or not. The banners outside actively encourage people to come in, the huge, welcome gardens out the front are available for loafing (although not in the cold that I was there), there is a lovely garden out the back of the building too, a garden room where you are encouraged to sit and read, the cafe, which is in the middle of the museum, not at the beginning or end (lovely idea!), spaces where large tables and chairs are provided (as well as magazines). And, naturally, being free, it just begs to be used for more than history.
I love this approach to a museum. I know it isn’t a new idea and many museums strive to achieve it, but the Geffrye just seemed to strike the perfect tone to make their museum a place to be and experience, not just a place to educate and entertain. I’ve certainly taken away some great ideas that I’d love to put into practice here if I get the chance!