The irony isn’t lost on me that, after a year locked up in our homes, London’s best new day out is at the Museum of the Home. Previously known as the Geffrye Museum, it reopens on June 12 with a new name, a gorgeously revamped building, and a refreshed purpose. After being closed for three years while an £18.1m redevelopment project was underway, it’s now ready to invite us all back in – and right from an imminently Instagram-able new red sign, above an accessible new entrance opposite Hoxton station, it does just that.
Where once the museum focused heavily on interior design, now the director Sonia Solicari is taking things in a new curatorial direction. "Now it's really about the experience of home as an emotional and psychological space,” she tells me when I visit. “Our vision is to review and rethink the ways we live, in order to live better together - and that’s bringing in a social mission as well.”
The jumping off point is one big question: what does home mean to you? And it’s an apt one for a moment when the concept of a home is changing – its delineation from work perhaps forever altered by the pandemic – but also at a time when actually owning one seems out of reach for many young Londoners.
That this expansive remit can actually be displayed is down to an impressive refurb by architects Wright & Wright, which has given it 80 percent more exhibition space. Keeping the original – very beautiful – Grade I listed almshouse building intact, the firm has smartly, sensitively and sustainably stitched the historical and the contemporary into the new design by digging down into the foundations.
Now there are three floors open to the public, giving the museum’s artefacts a better show but also allowing the space to breathe a bit more. In the new lower-ground floor gallery, windows have been added at garden level to bring in light. The expansion will also greatly improve the visitor experience: in the past, bottlenecks used to form in its popular ‘Rooms Through Time’ walkway, a particular stress for wheelchair users or parents with pushchairs.
Accessibility and practicality are integral to the new layout – the museum gets a lot of school visits, so a new learning centre has been placed near the toilets and garden, with steps nearby for children to sit on, all making life easier for beleaguered teachers. And new event spaces that open out onto the museum’s stunning gardens have been dotted around the building, with the hope that a festival of live events can be launched when the world gets up and running again in earnest.
The idea is that the museum can feel like a magazine – something you can dip in and out of. Where visitors once had to go through the entire exhibition space to get to the café or shop, these can now be visited separately and outside of museum opening hours. It will make the museum much more a part of the local community; people can pop into the new café, Molly’s (named after a pioneering former curator) and buy a coffee as part of their walk to the station.
So yes, it all looks beautiful – but what’s inside? The new Home Galleries, on the lower-ground floor, are where the meaning of home is put under the microscope. A photograph by the entrance by Jonathan Donovan, entitled All I Want Is a Room Somewhere, really sums up the personal and political breadth of the subject. It shows an older woman with dementia and a family of refugees from Syria – they needed somewhere to live and she needed care, so they came together to form a unit, and the girls would sing songs from My Fair Lady to help her remember things. It’s both immediately touching and gently thought-provoking about the wider possibilities of home.
In this space, vast historical and contemporary questions are explored, from domestic labour in the home to who gets to inherit property. And there are fun interactive elements for younger visitors – a game squashing bed bugs, and a chance to vote on this essential question: do you keep your ketchup in the cupboard or the fridge? (Clearly it’s the fridge). Perhaps most perfect is a TV set from the 90s surrounded by VHS tapes with hand-scribbled labels – the tapes, so you know they’re truly authentic, were found in a skip.
Upstairs, some of the popular Rooms Through Time (displaying the changing trends in British home decor) have been rejigged and reimagined. A 1745 parlour now shows signs of a servant cleaning the fire grate, with soot across the floor, to show what it was like to be lived in – and the often-ignored stories of the people who kept a house like this clean.
Solicari is keen to see how the visitors react to it (they might just think someone forgot to clean the floor), but the rooms provide a big opportunity to widen the stories being told, she says. It’s now been emphasised that the swanky 90s flat is home to a gay couple – and re-curating them is her next big project. A 1976 front room reflecting the experience of Windrush generation families, curated by playwright Michael McMillan, was a popular previous exhibit and has now been made permanent.
A nimble temporary exhibition programme will allow the museum to react more quickly to ongoing conversations. Upstairs, a video artwork called Waiting For Myself to Appear by McMillan and performed by Esther Niles is an attempt to contextualise the statue of slave trader Robert Geffrye outside the building, the removal of which was blocked by the government last summer (Solicari says the museum’s board of trustees is “amenable” to reopening the conversation about its removal again in future).
Downstairs, there are images from the museum’s rapid-response lockdown collecting project, while Holding the Baby, a series from photographer Polly Braiden, will explore the experiences of single parents. Behind the Door, a two-year partnership between the museum and the London Homeless Collective, will explore perceptions of homelessness and fundraise for charities in the collective.
And all the way round, the once-residential building’s original features are incorporated into the exhibition space, from an old coal chute to a beautifully preserved undercroft, which will feature a soundscape voiced by Maxine Peake. While work on the refurb was ongoing, the architects found an old boot up a chimney. They later discovered this was down to an old anti-witchcraft belief: putting a shoe up a chimney would keep evil away. That shoe is now on display – another fascinating story about the way we once lived and the universal need for a safe place to live.
Museum of the Home reopens on June 12 and entrance is free; museumofthehome.org.uk