diamond geezer

 Thursday, February 09, 2017

Until September 2015, the London borough of Bromley had a proper museum. It says a lot that I never visited. I nearly did once, I got to the front door but it was closed and I couldn't work out whether it was really open so I walked away. I fear I missed out on a friendly cheerful repository of historical ephemera in one of the most interesting boroughs in London. It's closed for good now.

For the previous 50 years Bromley Museum had been located in Orpington Priory, said to be Bromley's oldest surviving building, originating in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 15th and enlarged in the 17th. It's constructed of flint and timber, on two storeys, and is just the kind of building you might hope to find a museum collection inside. But modern financial reality eventually intruded, for which read austerity and cutbacks, and Bromley council decided the amenity had to go.

It's fair to say that people weren't best pleased. Here's one local blogger on the decision, and another on the closure, as a museum curator, assistant and education officer lost their jobs. But councillors saw the bright side, because that's their job, as they announced the opening of an alternative more central facility.
“Whilst the Museum does close its doors on Friday for the last time in Orpington, we will continue with preparations to have exhibition space in the centre of Bromley, in the Central library, which very much continues to showcase Bromley’s heritage. This new museum space will generate better footfall because of its location in the heart of the town centre and will be much more accessible and comfortable for visitors in a way that the Priory simply can’t be.” (Peter Morgan, Executive Councillor for Renewal and Recreation)
The new location is Bromley Central Library, three miles from the Priory, just off the High Street beside the Churchill Theatre. The building opened in 1977, and looks it, with a reinforced concrete frontage, large open galleries and echoing geometric stairwells. The museumy bit only opened in November last year, as blogged here, although it's not really a museum in the way you'd expect. Instead these are now Bromley Historic Collections, an amalgamation of museum and archive services under one roof, and open so long as the library is.

The main display space is on the first floor, at the top of the main staircase. Don't expect to see a curator, because there isn't one, neither did I spot any library staff in the checkout zone. Instead there are terminals where borrowers swipe their books in and out, because that's the modern way, and beside that four large glass cases, a lot of carpet and a fire engine. It's a historic fire engine, obviously, indeed more of an 18th century truck, and the largest item on display in this slimmed down collection.

A seriously eclectic sample has been selected to fill the space, from a leather hobnail boot to a Morphy Richards iron (as manufactured in St Mary Cray). Here too are bottles from the Chislehurst Mineral Water company, a Roman brooch from West Wickham and a match programme for Cray Wanderers versus Beckenham circa 1957. The exhibits are numbered on the information panels but not in the cases, and the whole thing's themed rather than being chronological. All in all it's an interesting set to pick over and peruse, but very little is covered in depth, as if this were a taster for a museum that no longer exists.

One exception to the rule is the Crystal Palace, with an assemblage of goodies featuring a sheet from the original plans, a photo of some navvies re-erecting the structure in Sydenham, and a glass tile part-melted in the fire that burnt the place down. Also scattered around are memories of some of Bromley's most famous residents, of which there are many, this once having been a not inconsiderable part of Kent. Come and see WG Grace's autograph, a selection of books by Enid Blyton and HG Wells, and possibly the museum's best loved artefact, David Bowie's customised green corduroy jacket.

A smaller area, over by the front window, is being used for temporary exhibitions... or in other words a chance to get some interesting stuff out of storage. The first six-month exhibition, perhaps predictably but nonetheless deservingly, focuses on Bromley's First World War. There must be dozens of similar displays in museums around the country, but each provides the much-needed local angle. That said, this corner of the library is a bit out of the way, and not especially obviously worth looking at, so I do wonder how many users come over to investigate.

I noticed that the signs around the stairwell suggested that the Collections continued on the second floor, so toddled up not necessarily expecting much, and was pleasantly surprised. Up here are the council archives, a store of old books and documents for perusal, once you've had a word with the nice lady at the desk. It's very much a "don't bring food and drink" and "don't use a biro" kind of place, but welcoming and with a selection of periodicals to read and local history books to buy. If you're one of the borough's 300000 residents, or ever had family here, you should take a look.

And up at the far end of the room, in a special now-permanent gallery, is the section I found most interesting of all. This is the John Lubbock Exhibition Gallery, an extensive and well thought-out tribute to a great Victorian collector, scientist, author, banker and politician. John grew up in Downe, and became a great friend of his near neighbour the young Charles Darwin, championing his evolutionary ideas as they grew older. John's great passion was archaeology - several anthropological artefacts from around the world are on display - and it's thanks to him that Stonehenge was preserved for the nation. He's also the man who first laid down the UK's bank holidays in law, for which we are all eternally grateful, indeed the sheer breadth of this polymath's achievements astounded me.

Meanwhile, back in Orpington, the Priory has been leased to a contemporary art organisation called V22, which plans to open artists' studios in part of the building this summer. The trustees have a long term aspiration to open part of the building to the public, but not as a museum, so what's now provided at Bromley Library will have to do. Change happens, and it's not as bad as it could have been, nor as good as it should.

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