LONDON A-Z 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
It 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.
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.