diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 19, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Crystal Palace Museum

Location: Anerley Hill, Crystal Palace SE19 2BA [map]
Open: Saturdays, Sundays & Bank Holidays (11am-4:30pm)
Admission: free
Guided tours: first Sunday of the month (noon, £3.50)
Brief summary: remembering Victorian spectacle
Website: www.crystalpalacemuseum.org.uk
Time to set aside: half an hour

Crystal Palace MuseumIt took me three attempts to visit the Crystal Palace Museum. I turned up on a Sunday in January and it was shut, no explanation. I turned up a couple of Saturdays ago and there was a sign on the locked door apologising for closure due to staff shortage. But I trooped out to the suburbs again last weekend and was finally rewarded by a "Museum Open" sign on the front doorstep. Thankfully my persistence was worth the repeated effort.

You're unlikely to stumble upon the Crystal Palace Museum by mistake. It's visible from the main road but not accessible, and it's accessible from the main park but only if you happen to wander into a muddy corner beside a miserable-looking brick ruin. The museum is housed in an 1880s classroom, which doesn't look like anything special but is in fact the only surviving building from the Palace's glory days. And this is very definitely an old-school exhibition.

You'll not find any buttons to press, artefacts to handle or videos to watch. Instead this is an exhibition presented within a series of glass cases... which is quite appropriate given that the original Crystal Palace was much the same only on a much larger scale. There are an awful lot of photographs on display, most of them lovingly prittsticked with an informative caption underneath. There's heritage ephemera such as tickets, programmes and chunks of roasted floor tile. There's an entire wall given over to a painted scene of what the Great Exhibition might have looked like, assuming it was frequented by cardboard cutouts in Victorian dress. And there's a big scale model of the Palace inside yet another glass case in the centre of the room. The whole place feels very much like a 1960s exhibition about the 1860s.

Crystal Palace (site)Don't knock the presentation. The photographic displays are both evocative and informative, and I learnt a heck of a lot about how important this place used to be. When the great Crystal Palace moved out from Hyde Park to Penge, a whole cross-section of Londoners followed. The main hall was the hub of popular classical music in the late 19th century, and greats such as Liszt and Sullivan performed here beneath the world's largest organ. Twenty consecutive FA Cup Finals were played in the park, and the Girl Guide movement kicked off on the site too. Brock's Fireworks used to put on spectacular themed displays, and a motor-racing circuit ran through the grounds. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Victoria were known to pop down every now and then, and high society poured in through a long-closed station adjacent to the palace gates. Until one night in November 1936, that is, when a Great Fire destroyed the entire iron and glass cathedral in hours.

Where the museum succeeded, much to my surprise, was in changing how I viewed the park after I walked back outside. Where previously I'd seen empty terraces and and a big half-empty park, now I could picture the enormity of what had been here before. My Crystal Palace will no longer be a sports ground surrounded by dog walkers, but a living breathing Victorian theme park packed with fountains, funfair and Fairy Archipelago. And that miserable-looking brick ruin beside the museum car park turned out to be the base of a 275-foot water tower designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. This South Tower was later used by broadcasting pioneer John Logie Baird as both experimental TV studios and a giant VHF aerial. It's proper historic, that is. And I'd never have guessed if the Museum had been closed.
by train: Crystal Palace

C is also for...
» Carlyle's House (I've been)
» Cartoon Museum
» Charles Dickens Museum (I've been)
» Church Farmhouse Museum, Hendon (I'm waiting for a jamjar moment)
» Churchill Museum (I've been, it's great)
» Clink Prison Museum
» Clockmakers' Museum (I've been)
» Courtauld Institute (I've been)
» Crofton Roman Villa
» Croydon Museum (I've been, they kicked me out)
» Cuming Museum (I've been, it's tiny)

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