My research at the museum of childhood has various different strands. Like some kind of earthworm, I’m attempting to begin burrowing through the soil of over 200 years of archived history at the London Metropolitan Archives, whilst in my non-earthworm persona I’m approaching the museum from the present, from what’s contemporary about the many subjects its contents encompass.
Conversation and exchange is a big part of my research, so each week when I go into the museum, I try and go on a different day so that I can meet a different selection of people who are associated with the museum. Staff and volunteers included, that amounts to around 150 people. This will take me a while! It occurs to me that the museum has a kind of Pandora’s box quality: it appears to be relatively small from the outside, but its layers and contents keep on unfolding once you open its door!
Jane has been associated with the museum since its very beginning. In fact before the museum was even created. Back in 1995 she’d heard about the collection of paintings held by Coram, (but looked after by the Tate), and she came to 140 Brunswick Square, curious to see the paintings that she’d heard were kept there. Very quickly she became involved and helped Coram set up their Friends organisation. She met the curator responsible for the paintings at the Tate, (a specialist in 18th Century artefacts) who told Jane that she was worried about the furniture and the clocks held by Coram. The staff of Coram loved the furniture but didn’t have time to properly conserve it. So Jane had a survey done and then raised money and commissioned a furniture conservationist. She worked with the first director of the museum – Rhian Harris – as the collection was being prepared. She even took on a kind of apprenticeship to a clock restorer in Clerkenwell to learn how to clean the clock cases and she took over the role of clock-winder. She also took on the role of piecing the past back together, re-uniting elements of furniture that had been separated, (she told me about finding bits of the Court Room table in desk drawers and engravings on tops of cupboards).
What particularly pleases her about the museum is a decision that was made early on to keep as much of the furniture as possible – rather than selling it off. And that this gives the museum a very particular kind of feel, a very different quality to many other galleries. She walked me around the museum and talked about some of her favourite things – like the 17th century ‘refectory’ table in the Committee room made from a single piece of Elm wood and with knife marks that reveal its use as a kitchen table.
She confirmed a vague wondering that I’d begun to have – that this part of Bloomsbury where the museum can be found, is an area that is slightly apart from the rest of the city – it has an almost secret garden feel. Even in present day London, it achieves a kind of secluded, hidden quality which Jane suggests comes from the fact that The Foundling Hospital owned so much of the land in this neighbourhood and therefore exerted a very particular influence over it. I had recently looked at a map from 1914 of the area and I told her that something about its cartography reminded me of a body – with green spaces as lungs and the foundling hospital as a kind of heart. She told me that in 18th Century maps of London you can see where the city of London officially ends and then just above this boundary appears the Foundling Hospital and the fields surrounding it. Even now the area is still enclosed by two squares, (Mecklenburgh and Brunswick), as well as Coram’s fields. Robert Louis Stevenson said in the 19th Century “This is an area dedicated to the humanities of life and the relief of all hard destinies.”
The 13 clocks, (two of which are stopped) are currently wound on a Wednesday lunchtime by Mary – who let me photograph her one Wednesday as she did so. She says the clocks all have different personalities and she admits to certain biases, (her favourite clock being a longcase clock by James Foulsham of Norwich which sits at the top of the first flight of stairs in the museum). The clocks are affected by the weather, (by damp or dryness), and Mary is a kind of clock doctor and timekeeper – diagnosing why a clock might be losing time and if needed readjusting it as she winds it. The clocks each have their own particular kinds of tick – varying in speed and tone – and Foulsham’s clock chimes the quarter hours. For me the clocks are an important sonic layer in the museum and what’s delightful about them is that they all keep time slightly differently, as if they have a different opinion about how it should be measured, or as if they are a kind of clock orchestra – collaborating in revealing the different layers of time present in the museum.