In a former eighteenth-century almshouse, tidily covered with ivy and situated behind an immaculate lawn, the Geffrye Museum of the Home holds a collection dedicated to the history of the English household. Covering a period from 1600 to the present day, and including a series of reconstructed period living rooms, the Geffrye Museum is a charming walk through time, and through the changing fashions and tastes of the British middle class.
The approach to the house - a quick walk around the corner from Hoxton Overground station - is a pleasant prospect, dappled with large leafy trees and inviting park benches. Its former function as a home for Shoreditch’s poor is still evident, however, in the building’s imposing, ordered structure - the rows upon rows of identical doors and windows mean the entrance to the Museum in the far left corner is not immediately obvious.
Once inside the main hallway of the almshouse, the museum leads you chronologically through eleven different period rooms, beginning in 1600. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century section explains the ‘science’ of housekeeping with sample recipes and dinner menus (beef and oysters were common breakfast items!), a description of the tasks a housewife was expected to perform (overseeing the ale brewing and butter churning, for example) and provides tactile examples of commonly-used cloth and material.
From the sturdy, well-used chairs of these earlier middle-class homes to the neat, bright and stylish wallpapers of the later eighteenth century, history and household items are presented in informative, accessible ways. The period rooms - their tables set as if the ghosts of the past were about to sit down to tea - are a fantastic way to visualize life in bygone days. Historical event timelines accompany sample floor plans from each period - helping to contextualise the changing fashions.
As to be expected in a British museum of the home, tea takes a place of prominence in the museum. There is a strong focus throughout the museum on the influence of foreign designs and tastes - and tea is a clear example of Britain’s welcoming acceptance of habits from abroad. Tea at first was extremely expensive, and was taken from tiny tea bowls - minuscule cups without handles - of which there are several very dainty examples on display.
The museum’s twentieth-century wing, added as an extension in the late 1990s, contains a selection of modern home furnishings and household items - with an unexpected focus on chairs. The influence of Scandinavian design on 1960s homes is detailed, as well as the appropriation of Modernism in the furnishings of the 1920s and 1930s - and I have to admit to covetously admiring several Art Deco tea sets. The 1990s display highlights the decade’s use of curves and organic form, materials such as glass and metal, and apparently, an utterly unprecedented obsession with converted loft spaces. The inclusion of the 1990s in the museum was somehow jarring: the only decade I am old enough to remember is finally far enough away to warrant its own period room reconstruction - and I suddenly understood the strange feeling of shock and nostalgia my parents felt when bell-bottomed jeans were in fashion again.
On the whole, the displays at the Geffrye Museum are highly accessible to visitors young and old - and are certainly a treat for antique lovers or vintage vultures. If the weather is fine, don’t miss a walk outside around the museum’s gardens - it is also home to a herb garden that boasts 170 different herbs and plants as well as four different period-inspired garden arrangements. The Geffrye Museum is charmingly old-fashioned - less heavy on multimedia interaction and smartphone apps - but peaceful and informative as a result.