When the Geffyre Museum closed in 2018, there was a lot of trepidation about its future. Often called a ‘hidden gem,’ it was a lovely little free museum that gave us an insight into Londoners’ home life over the last 400 years.
Three years later, it has been transformed and is now double the size with 80% more exhibition space. Still free, but with a new name, The Museum of the Home reopened on Saturday 12 June 2021. Before its closure, the museum had about 120,000 visitors annually. It estimates that will go up to 170,000 following the reopening.
The Museum of the Home is in Hoxton – an area historically known for furniture-making and market gardening but now one of the cool and creative east London neighborhoods. When I worked nearby ten years ago, it was a long walk from the nearest tube station, but the museum entrance is now right opposite Hoxton Station on the London Overground system. (There is also still an entrance on Kingsland Road, on the other side of the building.)
The relaunched Museum celebrates the heritage and beauty of its home: the 18th-century Grade I listed Geffrye almshouses and gardens (more about those later).
The buildings were saved from demolition to become a museum in 1914. The London County Council opened the museum to reflect the interests of the local furniture-making industry. It mostly displayed historic and modern furniture plus furniture-making tools.
In the 1930s, the museum shifted its focus and organized the collection into period rooms to show visitors how middle-class Londoners used their main living space over the last 400 years. The insight into urban domestic living extended to the gardens, too as our private outdoor space has been used in many different ways over four centuries.
The designers of the Museum of the Home – Wright & Wright Architects – discovered that the original 1914 alterations to form the Museum had destabilized it. Floors, internal walls, and staircases that had braced the buildings had been removed, and openings formed in the lower ground floors caused further structural instability. They have also had to correct detrimental alterations that were made to the building during the 1930s.
The Museum of the Home
The new museum design was constrained by the space available, but the architects clearly embraced that. The Museum’s rooms are not huge grand galleries but are closer to a domestic scale, so more fitting for displaying items about the home.
The Museum’s £18.1 million redevelopment has opened up spaces previously unseen by the public in its 100-year history. The relaunched Museum explores themes within the collection and through new commissions that relate to ‘home,’ including more topical issues such as homelessness, immigration, mental health, and the environment.
Is home just a place or a feeling? As Dorothy repeatedly said, “There’s no place like home.” The Museum now presents personal stories from Londoners and encourages us to explore and rethink the theme of home more broadly. The focus is now more on contemporary displays, but there are still many historical objects to see as the Museum has a vast collection. The displays also better reflect the diverse population of a capital city.
Your visitor route from the new large reception area starts downstairs on the lower ground floor. This whole floor was excavated for the new Home Galleries, and they run the full length of the building. The sequence of richly-colored galleries explores different concepts of home through ordinary people’s everyday experiences. They address cultures and religions, styles and aesthetic tastes, domestic gender roles, homelessness and migration, housework and entertainment, plus tales of love and loss.
These galleries want you to think about ‘What does home mean to you?’ They delve into our emotional, psychological, and sensory connections to our domestic environment. They draw on the Museum’s rich collections and records of personal stories to give voice to many different experiences of home over the past 400 years.
As I wandered through the new Home galleries, I realized how much I had missed visiting friends’ homes and just seeing the everyday domestic life of others: The just-delivered post on the kitchen table, the washing up on the draining board, and the shopping list held on the fridge with a favorite magnet. You know, the little things that are universal but also unique.
The displays down here are thematic rather than the chronological presentation on the ground floor. There’s a good use of audio so you can hear voices played out in some galleries, and in others, you lift a handset to listen to stories. There are touchscreens too.
‘Home Circumstances’ brings to light personal stories from the home from the 1900s to the present day, comprising photographs, audio recordings, and testimony. You can touch some objects, and there are some simple dressing-up clothes (treats within museums that many families have missed).
I also liked seeing John Evelyn‘s cabinet. It was commissioned by his wife to give him somewhere to store and display the rare and unusual objects he acquired from his studies and foreign travels. This ‘cabinet of curiosities’ was made in 1652 from ebony, fruitwood, and ivory.
‘Bought, Found, Given’ asks the question: ‘Where did you get that?’ I’m sure we all have things in our home that have been given or acquired over the years, from gifts and heirlooms to scavenged treasures and lucky finds. A set of John Lewis curtains stood out to me, with the answer ‘…left by a previous tenant’.
Do also look down as the gold lines on the floor that mark the original walls that were here when the buildings were working almshouses.
‘Shelf Life’ addresses the things we display in our homes as many are full of personal meaning. And ‘Style and Taste’ invites you to consider how individual choices in furnishing homes are influenced by social codes, fashions, behaviors, and global trends. It has the contents of the old Aesthetics Room that was upstairs, and the gallery cleverly brings together what you can see in the paintings with objects on display. For example, there is a lamp you can touch that is a replica of two on the mantelpiece in a painting next to it. And below a family portrait is a book on etiquette open to the rules on standing. Yes, a whole page on how to stand properly.
The Gallery Assistants are actually ‘Hosts’ as they are able to help you get much more out of your visit by pointing out things and giving background and context, so I definitely recommend having a quick chat with them as it will enhance your visit.
The photos of the residents of Ethelburga Tower in Battersea, south-west London, photographed in 2008, is displayed as a high-rise tower block. It shows how structurally identical rooms become unique because of the personality of those who live there.
I enjoyed a couple of touchscreen activities. I was able to design a mug (and it then goes onto the home-screen collection to inspire others) and a game of hitting the bed bugs in the ‘Housework’ gallery.
Did you know an old bed bug remedy was to smear the dripping of roasted cat on your bed? No, me neither. It was another snippet I got from a Gallery Host, so you can see how they can add to your visit.
The ‘Housework’ gallery also has the opportunity to smell some terrible cleaning ideas (all can be pulled down for smaller children but then, thankfully, go back in the box with a lid on).
You pass through the undercroft that is underneath the almshouse chapel. When pensioners lived in the almshouses, this vaulted space was mainly used to store coal.
The next gallery is about ‘Comfort’ and how, over time, our ideas of comfort have changed. This display explores technological advances, affordable furniture, domestic behaviors, heating, and ‘the perfect lighting’ that have all impacted the comfort of our homes.
Visitors can sit in a reimagined ‘cozy corner’ and try different lighting (candle, electric, gas). Cozy corners were popular during the late Victorian period. Designed for two people, they united comfort and intimacy, providing a secluded spot for tender conversations between couples and friends.
In ‘Entertainment,’ you can sit on a sofa and play Super Mario Kart, as well as see displays of TVs, VCR, radios, Monopoly, and dominoes. (I did wonder how many homes now have all the occupants heads down on their phones even while in the same room. Maybe that will be added to this gallery in the future?)
‘Faith’ is interesting as the museum celebrates diversity, and it is enlightening to see how others live.
‘Love & Loss’ is poignant as it has historic paintings and contemporary photographs to consider how family and friends can make a home as much as furnishings and possessions. In this painting, a maid is crying because she is overwhelmed by her first domestic service job.
Before you leave the lower ground floor, take a seat at the kitchen table for ‘Table Talk.’ This is where you can write a note with your opinions on the home and leave it on the fridge. The questions here will change regularly.
This interactive display will also be changed regularly.
Gardens Through Time
Before heading upstairs, do go out to see the gardens. From a Tudor knot garden to a green roof, the six spaces are laid out to show how domestic city gardens have developed over the centuries.
Rooms Through Time
Head upstairs, and you get to the old original entrance (for those who may have previously visited).
Before you reach the revived period room-sets, you enter the ‘Domestic Game Changers’ gallery, which has everyday objects that have had a radical effect on our home lives over time. From a Littlewoods home shopping catalog to Amazon Alexa, plus a heating thermostat and even bricks, this new display is a good introduction to objects that have changed the way we live.
There is a family trail available, and you can look out for the rhymes and poems with fun tasks such as spot the difference or code-breaking.
The period room-sets are replicas of the main living space of a real London home, whether that was a hall, formal parlor, or a cozy living room for middle-class owners. The rooms have been refreshed with new interpretations. They cover domestic life from 1600 onwards.
The 1630 Hall now has a projected ‘working’ fireplace…
… and the 1695 Parlour now has the paraphernalia of cleaning the fireplace as a new ‘scene.’ This room is typical of the houses that were built to replace those lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Each room’s caption is fabulous for setting the scene. “It is evening, and the family have been joined by friends for a light supper….”
As you reach the center of the long building, there is the Reading Room overlooking the gardens. There are bookshelves you can browse and sit down for a while.
The Geffrye Almshouse Chapel now has a video presentation. When this was a home for elderly pensioners, attendance of the Sunday service was compulsory.
Do note the monument to Sir Robert Geffrye. The sign nearby acknowledges that he profited from the forced labor and trading enslaved Africans. (More below.)
Next, there is some additional seating in the area that was the Matron’s house when the building was operational as an almshouse. The matron was responsible for looking after residents and recording any bad behavior.
An area that was never open to the public, there is now a small collection upstairs on the first floor (above ground level). It looks at the history of the building and the museum with a small display from the archives. The Collection Library is also on the first floor for the study of the archives.
You cross over at the reception area to reach the rotunda building and the rest of the period rooms.
Do see the ‘Images of Home’ display just inside on the left. It is a wonderful reminder that the paintings and photographs of domestic settings give us some insight into the ways people lived in the past, but they are not always totally reliable. It may be staged to be aspirational or rearranged to give a certain impression. It’s a valid point as when did you last take a photo of your home looking the way you live in it every day? We at least tidy away teacups and plump the cushions before taking a quick snap, don’t we?
The 1870 Parlour is a new Victorian room. It’s as wonderfully cluttered and chintzy as you would hope for. And there’s a great back story to this room as the adults have sent the children to bed as they are preparing the room for a séance with friends (a meeting to contact the dead).
The other new room is a 1976 front room for a Caribbean family. The 1970s was a colorful decade, but this room is really eye-popping! It has been curated by British playwright, artist, and curator Michael McMillan, following his popular exhibition The West Indian Front Room at the Museum in 2004-05.
There’s another great back story for this one. It’s a Saturday evening, and the teenagers are about to enjoy a sound system dance in nearby Dalston. They will all come together again for church on Sunday morning, and then friends and family will be welcomed back for rice and peas after the service.
For the opportunity to earn extra income, the Museum has been gifted the stunning Plain English Kitchen. It has been designed, crafted, and donated by Plain English with other British companies involved, including Farrow & Ball supplying the paint.
Why the Name Change?
In 2019, the Museum changed its name to better reflect its renewed focus on the theme of home.
The museum was named after Sir Robert Geffrye (1613–1703), the wealthy merchant and ironmonger and former Lord Mayor of London who paid for the almshouses to be built. Part of his money came from his involvement in the exploitative East India Company and Royal African Company. So, yes, he profited from forced labor and the transatlantic slave trade.
When Robert Geffrye and his wife Priscilla died in the early 18th century, they left no heir. As a devout Protestant, he was expected to leave some of his wealth to charity. He chose to donate to the Ironmongers’ Company to found almshouses that provided homes for poor pensioners. For almost 200 years, they provided shelter for pensioners of the Ironmongers’ Company and other poor and elderly people who had contributed to society in some way.
The Ironmongers’ Company chose to locate the almshouses in Shoreditch. It was still semi-rural in the area at that time. Fourteen almshouses were completed by 1714. Each one housed four pensioners, and the residents had one room each in which they ate, slept, and lived. It was because of this bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye that the Museum had always borne his name. Geffrye is not connected to the founding of the Museum or its collections.
There was recently public consultation on the future of the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, and 71% of respondents said the museum should take down the statue. In July 2020, the Board of the Museum of the Home took the decision to ‘retain and explain’ the statue in its current and original location. This is in line with the government’s position that statues should not be removed but should be interpreted in situ in order to tell the full story of Britain’s past.
Many would still prefer the statue not to be right on the front of the building but maybe be in the basement or garden with an explanation board. (Perhaps now there is the new entrance on the station side of the building, it will be less prominent.)
The gift shop is as wonderful as ever with even more brilliant gift ideas.
I’ll be returning soon for the ‘Home Brew’ cup and the Frida Kahlo oven glove.
Address: Geffrye Almshouses, 136 Kingsland Rd, London E2 8EA
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am–5 pm
Admission: Free (but you must pre-book your ticket)
Visit Duration: 2 hours to see everything (but as it’s free, you could see it in sections over a few visits)
Official Website: www.museumofthehome.org.uk
Molly’s Café: The new museum café is on the grounds of the Museum and opposite Hoxton Station. It’s within the ground floor of the refurbished former Victorian pub building and new extension on Cremer Street. Molly’s Café is named after Molly Harrison, the Museum’s curator, in the 1940s and 50s.