Located in the Hoxton area of East London, the Geffrye Museum has been open to the public since it was first established in 1914. Over its 105-year history, the museum has always been known as the Geffrye Museum but, under the directorship of Sonia Solicari, it will be rebranded as the Museum of the Home. The institution is housed in some 18th-century almshouses which were formerly in the ownership of the Ironmongers’ Company. These were built following a bequest of a former Lord Mayor of the City of London, Sir Robert Geffrye. As such, the museum has always borne his name. That is, until the announcement was made in late 2019 to alter the title of the museum.
According to the museum’s leadership team, the renaming will take place only once the institution reopens following an £18.1 million redevelopment that is currently underway. It is expected that this refurbishment programme will allow the museum to double the amount of its public space. As such, the renovation of the Geffrye Museum provides a great opportunity for the institution to alter its name to something – it is hoped – will make more immediate sense to the visiting public. It is expected that the renovation work will be completed in the third quarter of 2020. At this point, the museum will reopen with its Grade-1 listed almshouses still in place but with a new name.
Above: ‘Museum of the Home development: illustration of the new entrance opposite Hoxton Overground Station. Visual by Secchi Smith, design by Wright & Wright Architects.
According to press reports in the UK, the country’s National Lottery Heritage Fund has been the key to unlocking the necessary cash to allow the redevelopment plans to take shape. The fund’s management board has provided the majority of the necessary funding to allow the museum to reshape itself. In fact, the Heritage Fund, which has supported numerous museum sector schemes in the past, has approved £12.3 million of the total required to carry out the programme. Designed by Wright & Wright Architects, the planned renovation of the museum is expected to provide at least 80 per cent more gallery space for the museum’s curators to utilise. At the moment, the museum is only able to present a proportion of its collection to the public and it has long wanted the finances to allow it to show off more.
Nevertheless, despite the large charitable award from the Heritage Fund and the addition of the museum’s own funds, a final £600,000 is still needed for the plans to be put into action in full. At the moment, the Geffrye Museum is continuing to carry out a number of different fundraising activities to fill this gap. To meet the shortfall in its financial plan, there are online appeals, such as ‘Sow a Seed’ a programme that asks public benefactors to support its popular ‘Gardens Through Time’ exhibit.
A Wider Vision
The refurbishment and remodelling programme that the museum’s leadership team has opted for signals a big change with the institution’s past. Although much of the museum has been closed to the public since early 2018 to allow for building work to take place, the redevelopment is much more than simply reorganising the internal structure of the museum. Along with the institution’s new name, its overall vision for its various exhibition spaces will be altered. According to the museum’s announcement of its name change, the new vision will put “personal, diverse and thought-provoking stories” of the home at the front and centre of its new approach to public engagement.
The museum’s original benefactor, Robert Geffrye, was a successful merchant and ironmonger as well as holding public office as a mayor of London. He did not create the museum but paid for the almshouses to be built in which it currently sits. The conversion to a museum which bore his name came in the early twentieth century but it was only in the 1930s that the institution shifted its approach. At this time, the vision was to focus on furniture and furnishings associated with home interior design. As such, the Geffrye Museum was largely set out as a collection of period rooms showing off the various domestic styles of design in a chronological sense. It is expected that this approach will be dropped – to some extent or other – when the museum reopens in 2020.
Speaking about the shift in vision, the museum’s director, said the Geffrye Museum’s new approach was relatively straightforward to decide upon. This is because, as Solicari argued, the Geffrye Museum differs from other institutions in the UK’s capital that bear the name of their founders, such as the Horniman and Sir John Soane’s Museum. Solicari said that these collections were built upon the remarkable personal acquisitions of the people who founded them. “It was an easier decision… [to alter the vision of the Geffrye Museum],” Solicari said, “because Robert Geffrye didn’t create the museum.” She went on to say that the collection in the museum’s possession has little to do with the founder adding that the former mayor may or may not have liked the idea of a museum at all in the almshouses he funded.
What’s In a Name?
The museum’ said that rebranding to The Museum of the Home in its title would make it easier for people to get to grips with the museum’s mission. However, Solicari insisted that the name Geffrye was not being ditched completely. She said that the almshouses which have always borne his name would continue to do so. “On balance, we thought that we could achieve more and engage a lot more people by altering the museum’s name,” she said.
Prior to its temporary closure, the institution hosted in the region of 120,000 visitors each year. The board that runs it now have ambitious hopes that this will rise to 170,000 annually when the museum opens its doors once more. Only time will tell whether the name change will help in this regard. However, the fact that about 500 or so previously unseen artefacts will be able to be displayed permanently should mean that the museum becomes a bigger hit with visitors.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.