diamond geezer

 Monday, October 10, 2011

I wasn't terribly complimentary about Wandsworth Museum the last time I visited.
Quick backstory: Previous museum closed by council in 2007, contents under threat, local people (including two wealthy philanthropists) stepped in, independent trust formed, borough collection saved, new museum opened September 2010.
It looked like the model for a new breed of Big Society museum, with volunteers taking over what had previously been municipal services, and setting up shop unfunded. I visited a month after the new museum opened, and was unimpressed by the collection, the labelling and especially the entrance fee. Eight quid to look round two rooms, one of which was more antechamber than gallery, did seem somewhat exorbitant. But my ticket allowed unlimited visits at any time during the following twelve months, so I've been back just before it expired to see if things have changed. And they have.

The volunteer behind the counter seemed surprised to see my laminated Wandsworth Museum pass, as if they hadn't sold any of them for a very long time. I asked what the current admission price was, because it wasn't on show either at the desk or on the website. And what do you know, it's now £4, significantly less than before, as if market forces had kicked in and forced the owners to reduce entry fees to stimulate visitor numbers. Rather more realistic, hopefully... so I ventured inside.

Room 1 hasn't changed much. It still features a potted history of the borough, starting on the right and edging round the wall, with the occasional artefact thrown in for good measure. Rather too occasional still, alas. The entire Norman period is represented by a single sickly-looking sickle, now labelled "iron", which it wasn't last year, but not much to get excited about. Saxon-wise it's a little busier, including a "scramasax" (which I had to look up when I got home), plus further back there's the skull of a woolly rhinoceros who had the good fortune to die beneath Battersea Power Station. A series of display cases contain a few more items, some very borough-specific (bits from the Youngs Brewery, reports on the Putney Debates), others not. I did rather like the 1918 notebook of a Miss Ethel Rough, but only because the handwritten verse inside reminded me of exactly what my grandmother would have written at the time. Moving swiftly on...

Room 2 has changed completely. It's the temporary exhibition gallery, although the first temporary exhibition ("Wandsworth - a history in 100 objects") lasted a year and has only just been replaced. This second exhibition is rather better, if still somewhat limited. Entitled "Separation and Silence" it's an exploration of life in Her Majesty's Prison Wandsworth, which celebrates its 160th birthday this year. Silence was the original policy which saw prisoners forbidden to speak, and Separation the follow-up to prevent communication through signs and gestures. The need for separation explains why the Surrey House of Correction was built with 708 segregated cells, each 13ft long, 7ft wide and 9ft high. You'll see a genuine table and chair in one corner, and an original wooden door, plus an "execution box" containing everything a regional prison needed to hang a condemned criminal (along with matter-of-fact instructions for how to do it). I learnt plenty by reading the walls, which is the hallmark of a good exhibition. Hard labour in a compact Victorian prison often meant turning a pointless handcrank scooping sand, for example, until splitting ropes and sewing mailbags took over. Much of the gallery is given over to a modern needlework project - Fine Cell Work - which keeps today's inmates productively busy. It's impressive stuff, be it bespoke projects for English Heritage or cushions/quilts/tapestries for sale. Life at Wandsworth's definitely moved on since the days when Oscar Wilde sat in his cell contemplating suicide.

And Room 3 is the cafe. I didn't get inside last time because it was packed out with a children's party. Quite the opposite problem this time, alas. The cook sprung to her feet when I entered, in case she might finally have a customer for coffee, cake or chicken carbonara pesto, only to be disappointed when I went over to look at the gift shop instead. They have a good selection of local history books here - all your inner southwest London needs - and none of the usual plastic tat. Plus there's a marvellous old chemist shop interior in the corner, all bottles and panelled wood, which adds a real ambience to the place.

Wandsworth Museum definitely wasn't worth eight quid last year, but it's a bit more worth four quid this. Don't expect to spend more than thirty minutes in the museum proper - indeed if you exceed twenty you're probably doing well. But there is another treat in the rooms nextdoor. The De Morgan Centre has just reopened after a lengthy hiatus, packed with vibrant Arts and Crafts ceramics and symbolic art. You'll know William De Morgan's work if you've ever seen the heroic plaques at Postman's Park, but the collection here showcases far more impressive examples of his technicolour finery. Again, it's more a museumette than anything huge, and it costs another four quid to get in, but at least it doubles up what there is to see on site. Eight quid for two museums - definitely an improvement on eight quid for one.

Wandsworth Museum: official website, Facebook, Flickr set, review from London Historians
De Morgan Centre: official website, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, review from London Historians
38 West Hill Wandsworth London SW18 1RZ

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