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Saving The Cinema Museum




By Deirdre O’Neill.

Tucked away in an unfashionable part of London, The Cinema Museum is a rather well kept secret even amongst cinema lovers. This museum houses a collection of artefacts and memorabilia that celebrate the cinema-going experience from the 1890s up until the present day; there are cinema seats, uniforms, doors, carpets, signs, posters and much more, all connected to the days when going to the cinema was an event and people went two or more times a week.

The collection is housed in the old Lambeth workhouse where Charles Chaplin and his older half-brother Sydney spent some time during their impoverished childhood, after their mother requested to be taken in there. There is a wonderful synchronicity about the fact that Charlie Chaplin actor, clown, political provocateur and supporter of the rights of the underdog spent some time in this museum dedicated to the preservation, exhibition and interpretation of the most popular cultural form of the 20th century – the cinema.[i]

After the Second World War there were many things that happened to change the cinema-going habits of the general public. Tickets became more expensive, no new cinemas were being built as there was a need to rebuild bombed out cities and, of course, there was television.

Many of the artefacts in the museum were rescued by Ronald Grant (co-founder of the museum along with Martin Humphries), whose private collection makes up the bulk of the exhibits. For many years Ronald would drive up and down motorways to save seats, uniforms, picture displays, clocks, lamps etcetera that were being ripped from beautiful old cinema buildings to be destroyed or sold for scrap. At this time, during the 1960s and 1970s, cinemas were being closed down, converted into bingo halls or demolished: no more proof is needed of the low esteem in which cinema was held and how its status as popular culture resulted in its artefacts being considered transitory and disposable.

This is very revealing of how we, as a culture, value certain artefacts/pastimes considering some of them to be worthy of protection and preservation whilst others we consign to the rubbish tip, literally. It also demonstrates the role of museums in legitimizing some cultural forms whilst ignoring others.

In their original manifestation museums were conceived of as places where ‘high culture’ could be displayed in order to civilise the masses – this of course, is, in theory, no longer true. There has been a concentrated effort over the last 30 years, with the rise of social history as a discipline, to democratise the museum space – not only in terms of the assumptions made about the universal appeal and educational value of high culture – but also in terms of broadening the objects considered worthy of curating and displaying. And while this shift in approach is something to be applauded we could argue that, even with these changes in attitude, popular culture is still very much marginalised in the museum space, effectively relegated to the sidelines of special events dealing with ‘leisure activities in time-limited exhibitions’ (Moore 1997: 7).

All museums are implicitly political spaces – not in the party political sense, obviously – but they are not neutral spaces. The artefacts considered worthy of preservation, the buildings in which collections are housed, the geographical location of sites, all reveal something about the assumptions and attitudes of the society in which we live and our approach to what we find there. And whilst there is, I think, a generally agreed concept of museums as social spaces that exist to serve society at large, their authoritative, top down approach to cultural and historical knowledge and their imposing spaces have often militated against inclusivity.

The Cinema Museum could not be more different. Its celebration of an art form (along with music and TV) that historically offered an alternative to the presumed universality of traditional cultural values is grounded in the experiences of the people who work in the industry and who go to see the films. It does not take an overtly radical stance but the museums approach to the work it does, its collection, its exhibition, its geographical location, its history, its pricing policy, its celebration of popular culture, the dedication of its volunteers, all attest to an inclusivity considerably at odds with the majority of museums.

The exhibits at The Cinema Museum are linked in very personal ways to the lives and experiences of the people who run the museum. Tours of the collection are interwoven with stories of where objects were found and how they were obtained and collected, how much they cost, how they were used, when they were in use. These are not just artefacts, or curiosities from the past. These are living, breathing objects that have a history, a present and a future. This is not just a collection of exhibits but a form of communication that speaks to us about cinema and why we love it.

There is a wider debate to be had (although not here) about the purpose of museums, and their role in contemporary society, the nature of the work they do and whether that work could just as easily be done by another agencies. I would argue that The Cinema Museum and the way it functions, sets it apart from other museums. This is a museum about film; not just the product but also all that it takes to produce that product and the ways in which we have in the past consumed that product and how we still do consume it in the present. It is a museum concerned with our relationship to film. Film matters, not only because it was the popular cultural art form of the 20th century, but also because cinema touches all our lives, our relationship with cinema is one that engages with our sense of who we are and who we might become, it speaks to us of our dreams and our desires.

Film is art and film is history. It’s about memory, not just cultural memory but material memory and that is what the cinema museum offers to those who visit it; the link between our cultural and our material lives.

What follows is an interview with Martin Humphries, one of the museum curators and a co-founder of the museum.

Film International (FI): How did the museum come into being?

Martin Humphries (MH): The Cinema Museum came into being in 1984. Ronald and I had been collecting – he, for a very long time, me for a shorter period of time – and in 1983 we acquired a vast amount of material from Scotland that changed the collection significantly, almost overnight, into one that was now certainly of national but also international interest. So we took advice from various people and it was agreed that the best thing to do was to apply for charitable status and set up a board of trustees that included Ronald and myself. We are a company limited by guarantee so we are a ‘not for profit organisation’. We successfully got our charitable status and the whole aim at that point for the board of trustees, the main objective for them, was to find a permanent home for the collection.

At that time we were in Brixton in a decaying building called Raleigh Hall. We had 2 floors of that. It wasn’t suitable at all, either for storing the collection or as a place to work. So, the first thing was to try and find somewhere to move to. After discussions with Lambeth council they offered us an old housing office in Renfrew Road, which used to be a fire station. That was called The Old Fire Station and we moved in there in 1986 and it was very much better. It was better for the collection but it wasn’t suitable for exhibition purposes. It was better in terms of storage and there was more space and we were able to expand the activities that we did so. We were able to offer off site things like reminiscent projects and so on as well as improving the collection.

Now whilst we were in The Old Fire Station we became aware of this building that we are currently in, which is the Masters House of the old Lambeth workhouse, and we discovered the Charlie Chaplin connection. We were always keen, if there was the possibility, of being able to relocate to this building and we kept knocking on the door of the NHS Trust who owned it. In 1998 they said yes, we could rent it, so we then moved in here and this has been fantastic because there has been the possibility of displaying the collection and being able to do a lot more activities.

FI: Who runs the museum?

Apprentice projectionist Ronald Grant, at work c.1953.

MH: The museum is entirely volunteer run. There is still a board of trustees, which includes Ronald and myself, a film historian called Tony Fletcher, David Eve who worked in television for many years and who is involved with the Plaza Stockport and the Cinema Theatre Association and who is a strong supporter of cinema preservation, and an old friend of the museum called Edith Head whose husband’s film collection we inherited. The board will be expanding, probably in the next year, because we want to get it up to about seven people.

Other than that any other activities within the museum are volunteer run and led. We have a group of at least fifteen stalwart volunteers who offer both technical skills and administrative skills in terms of programming events and so on. Because of this we are able to run a full programme of events, which are usually Q&As with people from the film industry both in front of the cameras and behind, talking about their career and illustrated with clips. We are now also able to show films in the large space on the first floor. The museum is used as a resource by academics to come and do research as we have a very large library with an enormous amount of information both in terms of trade periodicals, books, magazines and photographs as well.

FI: Who programmes the events?

MH: Bob Geoghegan programmes it in conjunction with a group of ten people (mostly the museum volunteers). What he does is suggest ideas or ideas are suggested to him and it’s agreed by consensus which ones should be followed up.

FI: What exactly is in the museum?

MH: The museum is made up of objects that would have been in a cinema building previously, so its anything from carpets and light fittings to projectors, to sound equipment, to fire extinguishers, cinema related artefacts including the display items that would have been in the foyer to promote the films coming next week or currently showing. Much of the material is art deco, very atmospheric, provocative and people respond to it emotionally as well as visually.

FI: Who are the kind of people who come to the museum?

MH: Well, at the moment the people who come here for guided tours tend to be older people, but that is partially because they tend to be the people who have time on their hands during the day and like going out. We have several regular tour guides now who bring large groups of people to us. In terms of the people who come to the events, that’s much wider in terms of the age-range of people. Since last year we have seen the amount of young people coming to the events on a regular basis increase.

FI: What is the focus of your work?

MH: I suppose the main focus of our work at the moment is to try and get the museum better known, enjoyed by more people. That is really the main focus of what we are currently doing.

FI: What kind of archive material do you have?

MH: We have a very large stills and poster collection as well as the trade periodicals and magazines, huge amounts of photographic materials to do with cinema buildings themselves plus a lot of papers to do with cinemas, some of which date right back to the early silent period and they are a great resource for researchers.

FI: Why is the museum important?

MH: The museum is important because there is nothing like it anywhere else. There is nothing anywhere else in the country that celebrates cinema-going in the way that we do.

FI: How do you see the future? How do you envisage the museum developing?

MH: Well, what we would ideally like to be able to do is to raise enough money to buy the building we are in because that would give us security of tenure which is something we desperately, desperately need, because one thing about trying to apply for funding is that you have to be able to show that you have longevity. Funders like it if they know you might be around for the next 25 years, so that is our immediate aim, to be running a fundraising campaign for the next three years hopefully to buy the building. If we succeed in that then we can probably expand what we do so we are doing more educational work as well as being somewhere fantastic for people to come and spend a few hours.

The Cinema Museum needs to raise the funds to buy the lease of the building it currently inhabits. Over the next three years it will be involved in an intensive fundraising drive. This article is a contribution to raising the profile of the museum.

You can contact Martin Humphries at martin@cinemamuseum.org.uk

Visit the website of The Cinema Museum here.

Deirdre O’Neill is PhD student at the University of Ulster. Her 12-year-old son volunteers as an usher at The Cinema Museum.

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Reference

Moore, Kevin (1997), Museums and Popular CultureLeicester University Press.


[i] The museum is involved in a project to commemorate the work of Charles Chaplin. Artist Anna Odrich is attempting to raise the funds to build a large monument to the little tramp in an area where Chaplin lived and which is quite close to the cinema museum.

6 Comments for “Saving The Cinema Museum”

  1. HARRY PAPA-LOUIS

    I love visiting the museum each time I visit London from Melbourne, Australia. Stored within it are my early memories interwined and almost inseparable with my cinematic family memories that I often share with my brother George who is a volunteer. I would hate to lose that memory as I get older.

  2. This museum is a real hidden gem. It has wonderful material and entusiastic staff who are passionate about film and this unique collection. I have enjoyed evenings of talks by experts in the business and showings of rare footage surrounded by artefacts and costumes. The building itself is interesting and part of the history of the area. As the Elephant and Castle area gets redeveloped places like this become an important link to the past and a joy for the future for locals and visitors as well as far-flung researchers who use the archive via the web. It’s a great site, fascinating museum and so easy to get to.

  3. I paid a visit under the auspices of the Cinema Theatre Association and was enthralled. I think there could be a case for submitting an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to acquire the freehold of the building and expand your work.
    I haven’t been to the Film Museum in the old County Hall so I don’t know how much overlap there is, and also, indeed, with the CTA archive?

  4. [...] in Film International journal:      http://filmint.nu/?p=2273 This entry was posted in International News, Threatened. Bookmark the permalink. ← [...]

  5. Most of the dream palaces built in the 1930s have gone. Without the museum and enthusiasts who have salvaged items, plasterwork and other items from these ornate buildings, an important period in our history would go mainly unrecorded. It is important to preserve items and some buildings; the Plaza Stockport for example, so future generations will get an idea what it was like to enter these great palaces of escapism, where for a few shillings you could stay in all day because performances were continuous. Also there were double features, a cartoon and news. Multiplex cinemas don’t have the same appeal. Sadly the day of the cinema projectionist is almost at an end. Most cinemas of today use digital equipment, not 35mm film. Everything is automated and in many cases management control things from the office. It was great when a town had several cinemas, now most are built out of town centres on a retail estate. Going to the pictures was a great experience. For me, sadly, the magic has long gone.

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