London’s Curiosities Are Quietly Closing Down



image_awaiting_cleaningWhat makes London indefinably special?

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.



15 comments on “London’s Curiosities Are Quietly Closing Down”

  1. Brian says:

    Sorry to hear that about the De Morgan Collection as I had taken to visiting it most times I visited London.

    I wonder if the Horniman Museum is still going? It always reminded me of some of the Australian museums I visited in my childhood. The sort of place that had tags on some of the exhibits written copperplate with fountain pen and would only have an information desk rather than an interpretive centre. Only visited the Horniman once but spent a long day enjoying an eclectic and sometimes eccentric collection.

  2. Vivienne says:

    I’m sure the Horniman is still going. The Petrie Museum, part of UCL is worth a visit too. One of my favourite exhibits is labelled, with absolute accuracy, ‘small brown pebble’.

    Can anyone recommend a way of discovering these eccentric places before it’s too late? I can’t help feeling their eccentricity might stretch to not using easy to find websites.

  3. Steve2 says:

    Depressing isn’t it that small and unuasual collections are vanishing. Short of sponsors riding to the rescue I would imagine that this process will continue because public money isn’t going to be offered. Talking of sponsors, I read that the London Eye is now associated with Coca Cola, presumably because both parties are about fun… And the effects on kids can be the same! Vivienne, I’m pretty sure that I saw a book listing curious places and odd museums around London in waterstones last year, might have been published by Time Out. Should be on waterstones or foyles website. Just got back from the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at Museum of London, which we enjoyed. Plenty of photos of the period, artifacts including Conan Doyle’s notebooks and of course Cumberpatch’s coat. Couple of hours easy if you you’re interested in Sherlock and 2 for 1 with a waterstones points card, £10 or so.

  4. Martin says:

    I live in Forest Hill and can confirm that the Horniman is still going strong – even has a new aquarium, and puts on lots of eclectic exhibitions and events! Nice to know this incredibly charming place is still open, sad that all the others seem to be suffering. It seems all of London’s character is gradually being replaced by hordes of Starbucks, Eats, Costa etc and faceless glass blocks with no charm whatsoever.

  5. Terenzio says:

    It’s a real shame about the De Morgan Collection. Granted a few of his pieces are on display at the V&A. And you can always visit the delightful Leighton House Museum in Kensington where you will find De Morgan tiles in the exquisite Arab Hall. Still there is something special about these small quirky specialized museums that you can’t find in large museums like the V&A. The staff of these small museums are so proud of their collections and are usually quite fun to talk to. Something you generally don’t find in larger museums. I’m also sorry to hear about the St Bride Library. That was also fun to visit. And given the historical importance of printing in the area it really should be preserved, which I would think it will be. But I do wish they would use phrases like “refurbishment” or “renovation” as opposed to “redevelopment” which in mind equates to luxury flats.

    I shall retire to the boudoir to ponder the slow demise of the quickness that makes cities like London, New York et al so special. I might have to add something a bit stronger to my afternoon tea to keep my spirits up.

    À bientôt….the one in the gorgeous purple dressing gown and lovely velvet slippers. A belated Happy New York to everyone on the blog. I haven’t been about lately, however, I wish everyone the very best.

  6. Vivienne says:

    Could I also recommend the place that features examples of branded products. It’s in a road parallel with Portobello Road, and I went there as Scott’s Porige Oats had changed their package and I couldn’t find their original design. The story runs like a spy story, but the first chap was based on a real person. Why do they hide these things? But for true nostalgia, it’s worth a visit. Thanks Steve2 will look for that , but Time Out is not what it was.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    My husband would say, “It’s not a bicycle so nothing will happen.” Vancouver has a Boris-type mayor.
    Hmm, I doubt that the copperplate was written with a fountain pen, _if_ it was copperplate. I liked the old handwritten tags, too, and they are quick to disappear when the professionals take over. I wonder if some of the smallest collections would benefit from being combined into a larger collection which might attract more support. The type museum, the brands museum are both of importance to people doing research and need to survive. It isn’t enough to read about things; to gain a proper view a first hand look is necessary. The Globe Theatre is a type of minimal collection and look what a lesson it can provide on Elizabethan/early Jacobean theatre. A badly curated collection does not deserve to survive, however. Items must be kept clean, checked regularly for damage or deterioration, and displayed in such a way and with information that will educate the viewer. It’s this last part that is difficult to do well, especially for those of us without special training.

  8. snowy says:

    A very well known on-line encyclopedia has a list of the over 200 museums in London including many of the smaller and lesser known ones.

    [Wordpress seems not to like the link, for some reason. Searching with the phrase “museums in london” should put the link near the top of the page.]

    Minor PS.

    “Copyright © 2014 Christopher Fowler – All Rights Reserved” at the bottom of the site pages, might want to bump that up. [Or have it called as a variable, then it will tick over on NYE each year.]

  9. Michele says:

    Long, long ago I went to The Cat Museum in Harrow-on-the-Hill. It was in the basement of an antiques shop. (It seems to still exist: look it up.) But even in the ’70s my curiosity was such as to propel me there.
    For the current era, though, my favorites — Dr. Johnson’s aside — are the Grant Museum at UCL (cabinet after cabinet of extraordinary specimen curiosities), the Cartoon Museum (always terrific new shows), the Guildhall, the Foundling Museum (esp. the Names Wall and the audio oral histories), the Opie (Brands & Packaging: a joy), the Flo Nightingale, and the exhibit area at the Finsbury Library in Clerkenwell.
    On my list still: the Horniman (sorry for my tardiness on this), the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Society, the Estorick Collection, the Fretwork House and the Museum of London Docklands. Among others.
    By the way: to my mind, Dr. Johnson’s House has by far London’s best postcards: you both enter and exit by the gift shop, and you find them there.

  10. Tim Martin says:

    Thank you Cristopher Fowler for highligting the fact that the Type Museum has been closed now for over eight years – my eight year old daughter who was born in the same street as the Museum just as it being closed up – has still not been able to be given the tour that I, Duncan Avery, Howard Bratter and the late Justin Howes had previously given to hundreds of graphic design students, typographers, type designers, bibliophiles and aficionados of the finer arts of print and print technology history. London was a world capital of printing and even now the artefacts are still here, collected along with those from Sheffield and York – but there is no London home for the study of typography and printing’s hstory, craft and technology. There is still a typemueseumsociety of supporters who know the value of the museum but the trustees have so far failed to find a way to inspire the level of support this world class museum warrants – it is still there – but as a closed archive with the last Monotype craft team quietly supporting the remaining users worldwide of the ‘Rolls-Royce’ of letterpress.

  11. Peter-S says:

    Perhaps what is needed is for some sort of collaborative effort. Many of these small museums fail to attract a viable footfall of visitors. Perhaps it needs a philanthropist or benefactor to provide a hub where a number of museums can be co-sited. Then each would benefit from the proximity of the others.

    Bletchley Park is a good example. The surplus huts are populated by a toy & doll museum, a telephone & radio museum and by a model railway society. I presume each pays for its space at Bletchley and I guess the costs are much less than maintaining their own exclusive premises. And certainly each one picks up ‘passing trade’ from folks visiting the other collections.

  12. m says:

    I’m bookmarking this for the next time I get to visit London. I didn’t make it to the Horniman so I’ll have to return.

  13. The St Bride Library closure is very much a temporary measure, and the collections will be accessible again when conservation and building works are completed. Unfortunately we can’t give even an approximate re-opening date as the timescale for the demolition and rebuilding of Fleet House (our neighbour in Bride Lane) is not within our power.

    In the short period since the Christmas holidays a substantial amount of work has already been carried out at St Bride. Our original Reading Room (now known as the Passmore Edwards room) has been completely redecorated and some new cabling has been installed. The William Blades Library is to receive new lighting and carpets and will also be redecorated, following the removal of two old bookcases which were added in the 1920s and which gave the room a cramped and dingy feel. We have welcomed a team of volunteer conservators, who have processed over 200 items since Christmas and provided improved storage for many of these.

    This kind of work takes time if it is to be done properly. We look forward to welcoming readers once again when the job is done.

  14. The St Bride Library has temporarily closed. This is due to the responsible protection of precious books and items. The St Bride Foundation remains open at this time. The adjoining building (Fleet House), is being demolished and a new building replacing it. The mess and disruption caused to our late 19th century building, can only be imagined. Some areas will remain open for business, including the Bridewell Theatre and Print Workshop, until it becomes impossible to do so. Please be assured the closure is temporary. At the time of writing, Intertype and Ludlow Linecasting machines are being installed for visitors and students to appreciate the newspaper production techniques.
    Please watch our website for further developments.

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