London’s Curiosities Are Quietly Closing Down
I’d argue that rather than shopping or nightlife, it’s London’s ability to satisfy the quirkiest of special interests. However, that ability may be in decline, judging by what happened this week to an American friend of mine, Michele, who loves London’s specialist venues and decided to visit a few places on her must-see list. In the past, Michele has looked after the Dr Johnson House, and is fascinated by such places.
So, first up: The Type Museum near the Oval, Kennington. It’s a unique, massive collection of artefacts representing the legacy of type-founding in Britain, and the composing systems that supplied the world with type in all languages. If you’re a graphic designer or typesetter, this would be the place for you, a repository of many of the original forms, punches, matrices and patterns of the most famous and successful metal and wood type foundries in the world. It also holds a historic collection of presses. It is estimated that the collections include between five and eleven million artefacts.
Except you can’t go there anymore. The place is now under development. It’s hard to know if this is because the building is up for grabs because the museum has shut and their website has emptied out.
Next on Michele’s list was the Cuming Museum. For more than a century this museum in Southwark has housed an eclectic collection of curios and antiquities accumulated by father and son Richard and Henry Cuming between 1788 and 1902. On its 1906 opening the space was described as “the British Museum in miniature” and its varied range of costumes, textiles, medals, weapons and trinkets come from at least 50 different countries.
But it burned down two years ago, and it still doesn’t show any signs of reopening. What’s happening to the collection? A Southwark Council official told me that the collection was saved, but will take ‘many years’ to be cleaned and put back on display because of funding.
Okay, thought Michele, I’ll try something else – what’s next? How about the De Morgan Foundation Collection? This is an unparalleled collection of work by the late 19th and early 20th century ceramicist William De Morgan and his artist wife Evelyn. William De Morgan was the most famous potter of the Arts & Crafts Movement. The Foundation owns over 1000 pieces of ceramics, including individual tiles and beautiful tile panels, dishes, chargers, bowls and vases by William.
Too late, I’m afraid. It was kicked out of its home in June 2014 when Wandsworth Council foreclosed on the lease, and is now searching for a new site – so far without luck. So that’s off the list.
Right, thought my cultured friend, let’s at least visit the celebrated St Bride’s Library, where I can read up on such subjects. The library on top of St Bride’s has an archive of over 50,000 books ranging all the way from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, to classics on printing technique, visual style and calligraphy.
But, she found, not anymore. It’s been closed down due to – you guessed it – building redevelopment. The curators say it will reopen somewhere, somehow, but are unable to give a date or location.
These may seem like lonely, under-appreciated places visited by students, specialists and the terminally curious, but they are important to the fabric of life here. They have been looked after by teams of loving conservationists, and while each may have valid reasons for shutting, collectively it starts to look as if London is closing its doors to the very things that make it interesting. Not everything should have to make money and pay for itself.
Perhaps there’s a solution for the above venues. If they added a ‘Sky Garden’ consisting of a few palm trees, open to all by advance application and an imprint of your Visa card, our mayor would find places for them in his latest skyscrapers.