Ubi Sunt

Where have they gone? Why have they disappeared? Ever since I was very small I have loved museums. When I was tiny and my parents were still together, my father would take me out every Saturday morning and we would go shopping first to the North End road, go, to the launderette, watch the boxing next door through the window of Radio Rentals while our washing was turning and then in the afternoon he would either take me to the park or to the Natural History Museum. I preferred the museum because there were no wild animals and no wind or rain or sun, for that matter – I didn’t care for weather even then, but there was a lot to see. Roomfuls of stuffed animals, but best of all magical drawers in enormous chests full of birds’ eggs and butterflies and other wondrous things. I loved it because there was always something new, something beautiful. My father used to joke later on that I learned to walk in the Natural History Museum – I was a very late developer!!
Later on, when my mother moved to South Kensington my stepfather helped me discover the Geological Museum, with its stones and jewels and extraordinary rock formations. It’s now amalgamated with the Science Museum next door; this one was a much later interest – in fact I only really began to appreciate it when I started taking school trips there, though I did have my first “date“ there. I was by then allowed to go to the South Kensington museums on my own as they were so near, but I don’t think my mother ever found out that I was going to meet a boy. The only time, Mummy, I promise. Not for lack of trying, however, I must admit. I remember wearing my confirmation dress and taking a handbag – very sophisticated indeed. The young man (whose mother was going out, I believe, with my father) was very kind – but was totally unaware it was a date. Ah well. I got home very safely.
Then there was the Victoria and Albert which remains my one true love. It introduced me to theatre through the stage sets of Edward Gordon Craig, to the art of Aubrey Beardsley , to the Raphaël cartoons and to the history of fashion, of furniture, of ceramics and glass. I still love it, though it seems to have changed its remit slightly. I went to the Pink Floyd exhibition a couple of weeks ago, mainly to see if there was any mention of Syd Barrett’s living quarters in 1968. He lived on the first floor of Egerton Court when we were on the fourth. It’s well documented elsewhere but I thought I’d take a look. But no. The rest of the exhibition was fascinating and because we were made to wear headphones – which I usually avoid – I actually listened to their music properly for the first time – and enjoyed it!

But where are they now – the lost museums. The museums I brought my own children up in. They didn’t learn to walk in the Museum of Mankind – in Burlington Gardens at the back of Piccadilly, but they did see some fabulous exhibitions – canoe making and rice barn making to name but two.
What on earth happened to the Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank? – the story of film making with lots of interactive possibilities – cartoon making,discovering zoetropes, interviewing Michael Parkinson, reading the news, etc. It had a miniature art deco cinema inside. We used to go there almost every holiday because it was so interesting. I also took a school trip there from Walford School, where some of the little dears misbehaved very badly: they decided to read the news as written by them. They went into the “studio” which was quite dark inside, sat at the microphone in front of the camera, and proceeded to ”read “, totally unaware that everything they said and did was being relayed to the rest of the museum. They were eleven and in their element. They used every naughty word and expression they could think of, and they were mightily pleased with themselves as they came out. I didn’t say anything, just made them watch the next group. Suddenly realisation dawned on them that I – and a hundred others – had heard everything they said, watched every gesture they had made. They caught my eye at this point, and in their embarrassment wanted to make a run for it. I was too quick for them ( I was younger then) and managed to get hold of them. They had to spend the rest of the day walking by my side, poor things. I wonder what they are doing now? Adam Prior and ???????

Where is the Theatre Museum, of Covent Garden, with its putting on the slap lessons, the backstage experience, the inside story? Another place I loved – it had a small theatre inside, where we once watched Hobsons Choice, standing around a tiny stage which actually looked more like a large four poster bed than anything else. The atmosphere was perfect.

Or the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, also in Covent Garden with its automatons, some grizzly, mostly witty and all beautifully made.
These quirky little museums were perfect places to spend a couple of hours in. you never felt you were missing something because they were too big, but you always knew that every time you came back there would be something idiosyncratic, a little bit different, or their very familiarity would create a sense of contentment.
There are many other small museums in London which I enjoy exploring, but I haven’t forgotten these. All that remains of them seems to be Wikipedia articles. Not quite the same at all.

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