Can you remember the first time you visited a historic house, and crept around in hushed reverence like a trespasser in a time warp ... only to discover it had been refurbished. It was a stage set, the wallpaper still fresh, furniture and books brought in as a job lot. The illusion was shattered, the intimacy false. Though we sometimes just want the clocks to stop, it’s cuckoo to believe time hasn’t passed.
But that’s what house museums want us to believe. There’s an appetite for well-managed deception, especially in Britain, the land of Downton Abbey and Parade’s End. Riding the train of a royal wedding dress, Britain exports nostalgia like nowhere else. “The Englishman’s home is his castle,” as the saying goes. But sometimes it’s the visitor who needs fortification. Now, as many museums are closing across the UK and US the average house museum needs to up its game.
The best house museums are those that illuminate something of our own lives by comparing and contrasting living conditions, and presenting the lost crafts that sustained our ancestors, marvellous to behold from our own experience of deskilled, industrialised overconsumption. The most convincing museums tend to be the best preserved. And if you’re very lucky, you’ll find both in the rarest of all specimens – those left almost exactly as they were lived in, time warps of benign neglect or planned fossilisation.
By 1905, when he wrote his will and promptly expired, the idea of leaving “an example of a bourgeois home of the 19th century” had struck Louis Mantin of Moulins, France, as a really good idea.
Twelve years previously, his architect had built him a home for his worldly possessions, and since they all now had a place, why leave them homeless? So Mantin decided the whole thing should be boarded up for a hundred years, like something from a fairy tale. Admittedly, the average fairy tale is more probable than the home surviving two world wars untouched but, somehow, it did and its doors creaked open amid a cloud of dust in 2005. The Musée Maison Mantin was revealed in 2010.
Another intact survivor, even older than the Maison Mantin, is the eccentrically remodelled home and studio of the architect Sir John Soane in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, which describes itself as “the finest house museum in the world”. When he died in 1837, his residence and office were left to the nation. For much of its subsequent history, when the kitchen and bedroom were not on display, this was less a house museum than a fragmentarium, a repository of inspirational artefacts. But now, after a £7m campaign, the Soanes’ bedroom will, indeed, be shown and his bathroom too. The Soane is raising its game by getting personal.
I’d argue that we’re connoisseurs of house museums as a species because we’re innate amateur museologists, constantly curating our own houses to reflect our changing interests and personalities.
But the professional house museum curator is a different creature, a product of Victorian antiquarianism. Reconstructed interiors have been popular museum displays since the 1870s, often to serve nationalistic ideas of a golden age of home-grown style or as a display of imperial prowess. The professionals who made them came to divide their time between homes of everyday chaos and museums that purveyed a “period authenticity” of brighter, more uniform times we might do well to aspire to. Often, those period displays were pure invention.
In 1914, London’s Geffrye Museum opened, for a very practical purpose: as a repository of exemplary furniture to instruct and inspire the furniture manufacturers from the gritty workshops of Spitalfields and Clerkenwell, districts in the city’s East End. But, over the decades, it turned into a cavalcade of period-style rooms of the London “middle class”, and in each vignette all the furniture represented the same era, to the decade. A chartreuse and ultramarine 1960s interior showcased space-age aspirations and, thanks to the boom in international travel, Costa Brava reality.
But was history ever so neat? I have to ask: do you live with completely contemporary, uniform furniture? I don’t. Our 1860s dining table seems quite happy near a pair of French 1920s seats from a Norwich hotel that sit on the teak block floor salvaged from Spalding Grammar School (c1930; laid here in 2006).
There is a glazed sub-Arts and Crafts wall-cabinet I customised and painted, which is set beneath a 16th-century engraving, a gift from a dear friend, framed by a find from a Suffolk antiques barn. Plaster casts of classical capitals from a New York flea market hang over the modern door at odds with both a squiggly Ikea rug, and the French bronze gothic corbels (c1870) with candle vases on them, in defiance of trendy electricity. The scene is reflected in a ridiculous convex mirror by a student who had mock-baroqued it with a glue gun and an insane quantity of plaster mouldings. And there are naturally assorted books, toys and games. Each item in the disorder contributes to mapping out our family’s lives and interests. That’s how we’ve always lived. And that’s authenticity.
Dennis Severs (1948-99), an American artist in London, knew this instinctively. His Georgian house was built in 1724 on Folgate Street, Spitalfields, among an enclave of 18th-century Huguenot houses, now embattled by the marching steel and glass towers of the City of London. When it opened in 1995 as the supposedly time-locked house of the fictional Jervis family, it was lampooned by the heritage and museum world. The details were wrong.
I revisited on a cold winter evening. Beneath the gas-lit fanlight of the front door, I was asked with rehearsed precision to take leave of my senses. The mental preparation is important: down the bare, narrow stairs to the basement is the kitchen where bread, butter and vegetables were illuminated by the living coal fire. The details were slow to emerge from the absorbing gloom but the sound of crackling melded with distant hooves and voices, and the occasional thud of real feet above. A notice reads: “The family tonight who will save you from ‘period decoration, antiques’ and ... cold facts, is an animated, generous and fun-loving family of master silk-weavers named Jervis.”
This is self-admitted theatre. Upstairs, I happened to spot the Delft tiles within the fireplace of the main bedroom. Portrayed in cobalt-blue on white, a style that might pass for 1700, are the still-living artists Gilbert & George, and other local Spitalfields characters of the 1980s and 1990s painted by Severs’ partner, a potter who made most of the reproduction pieces. This is anything but a period room but, bizarrely, it has a period atmosphere.
Only on leaving did I remember this is not called the Jervis House but Dennis Severs’ House, and the fact he lived in his theatrical creation gives it an absolute authenticity. It’s his character that pervades, bringing wit to meet your imagination, rather than attempting to dryly fool you.
Restored house museums succeed through brilliant presentation and activities that bring a special sense of others’ lives, usually on a large budget. But Britain might just be overloaded with unconvincing house museums, too often the default choice for restoration.
In Kyoto, Japan, a campaign is growing to save its machiya: long, timber-built courtyard houses from the Edo period (1603-1867). Built for the growing merchant class, they served as residences and workspaces fronted by a shop, but they were prohibited after the second world war in favour of high-rise buildings.
Development is still so intense in Japan that the game is simply to keep examples of these houses standing. Kyoto still has some but generations have passed without having built or repaired one. And there can be no house museums at all when the last house has gone.
Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain