Living (rooms) through history

Following on from Becca’s brilliant blog yesterday about history’s personal stories (and great dressing up!), the museum I’ve chosen to blog about also has a somewhat domestic setting.

As much as I’m obsessed with personal stories through history, I’m also extremely nosy when it comes to houses (who isn’t?) and I’m a sucker for a historic house to wander round. Seeing through the keyholes of houses through history has always fascinated me. How did people live without electricity? What was a parlour used for? What would it have been like to have a bath in a tin in the kitchen? No central heating? Please! Domestic history, for me, is almost more interesting than the big events.

So imagine my delight, when a few years ago I realised I had a wonder of a museum that allowed me to indulge my obsession, right on my doorstep, and see front rooms through history of everyday people like us.

Exterior of the Geffrye Museum - photography Richard Davies

Exterior of the Geffrye Museum – photography Richard Davies

The Geffrye Museum is (perhaps) a little-known museum in London, mainly because, until recently, it wasn’t part of the tourist trail. It is in East London, just down from Dalston and I used to peer at the building from the bus on an almost daily basis, never having been in, but when I finally did, it instantly became one of my favourite places.

By entering the building from one end, you start your journey from the 1630s “hall”, transition though to various “parlours” up to 1790, then into the “drawing room” and finally into the “living room” up to 1998. You see how furniture, decoration, wallpaper, art and even entertainment has changed in our front rooms and how the space has gone from being formal and private to being relaxed and social, also referenced in the evolving of the name more towards the “lounge”.

When I first visited it was December, and I was delighted to find that they had set each room up as it would have been for Christmas – showing the first room where Christmas trees had become widespread, leading right up to the tinsel period. I remember being inspired by the 1965 room with paper chains, and promptly went home and adopted a similar look in my own living room.

Who remembers this look?

Who remembers this look?

What I love about this museum, is that it is showing normal lives, normal people, and how we are all, without realising it, part of history. The 60s room triggered memories of my own grandparents’ front room, of furniture that had then passed down to my parents, which in its time was the “height of fashion” – and then became part of my family history. And then, mirrored in a museum. How many other people had that table, that unit, that lampshade? How many other families shared the same memory of this particular “look” for their living room? It felt like a living museum, a shared history, telling a story through the most simple of things, the room in our houses that we now perhaps take most for granted.

I think it’s apt that I wrote this post last night, while staying with family and sitting in their living room (we are waiting to move into our own). With the TV on, a few us with feet up on the sofa, reading papers, being on phones and laptops. And I can’t help but think how many years until the living room setting I describe becomes part of history and we maybe adopt some other set up, or use for this familiar room. Who knows? And that’s why history and museums can be so exciting, as I’m already thinking, when will the Geffrye add a new room? What is the next living room marker deemed historic?

East London living room, circa 2013. (With cat included)

East London living room, circa 2013. (With cat included)

So, I urge you to make the trip East if you are in London and haven’t discovered this place yet. I hope you come away as inspired as I continue to be by this special little (totally free) museum about our very ordinary front rooms.


6 responses to “Living (rooms) through history

  1. I’d entirely forgotten about this museum, so thank you for posting about it! It really is a little jewel!

  2. Would love to visit this place – sounds amazing – what a great way to look at how our social spaces have evolved. It’s all about the kitchens these days – all the adults hang out in the kitchen and the kids take over the living room in our house.

  3. beccawearsredwellies

    You can also visit Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge which has a house preserved as it was when the Artists were living there – but it’s an exhibition at the same time. It’s amazing!

  4. I think you might like this beauty of a museum too, if you are ever Birmingham-way: Avoncroft Museum of Historic Buildings. Not free and not just domestic buildings but there is a brilliant collection of historic buildings, harvested from across the country and re-placed in beautiful countryside. There’s a fully kitted-out wartime prefab, a Mill-on-the-Floss-era tollhouse, a windmill … Anderson shelter. All ace!

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