Wright & Wright’s sensitive restoration, renovation and expansion project has increased space and accessibility in this historic Hoxton museum
Words by Francesca Perry
Home. It’s become even more critical, and interrogated, since the lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic confined many of us to domestic interiors. Issues of culture, lifestyle, inequality and health all weave into the consideration and exploration of what a home is and can be, across history and around the world. It is this stark relevance and importance that underpins the revival of London’s Geffrye Museum as the Museum of the Home, opening on Saturday 12 June 2021, now with 80% more exhibition space so it can interrogate these issues more thoroughly – and immersively.
An £18.1m renovation project led by Wright & Wright Architects has seen not only the expansion of exhibition space in the museum – which is housed predominantly in Grade I-listed, 18th-century former almshouses in Hoxton – but also the creation of 50% more public space.
Two newbuild interventions – a Learning Pavilion and Studio – have been added; a new Overground station-facing entrance has been created to improve accessibility; the lower-ground floor of the museum has been opened up to the public for the first time; the first floor has been reinstated with a new publicly accessible library, and a new cafe has been established in a former pub building at the corner of the site, belonging to the museum.
The 18th-century almshouses housing the museum have been restored and adapted. Photograph: Helene Binet
Vitally, the original architecture of the 14 connected brick almshouses has also been carefully repaired and preserved, including the correction of detrimental alterations made in the 1930s. While the almshouses originally housed pensioners associated with the Ironmongers’ Company, the complex was later sold to the London County Council and transformed into a museum of furniture in 1914, to reflect the furniture-making reputation of the area. During this process, domestic walls, floors and staircases were removed, leading to structural instability that has now finally been remedied.
The museum was extended in 1998 by Branson Coates Architecture to expand exhibition and learning space, and along with the original almshouses this has played an important role in the rethinking of the complex. Such rethinking also necessarily transcends design: the museum name was changed in 2019 during renovation, in part to clarify the institution’s role, but surely also to reckon with the history of Sir Robert Geffrye, who financed the original almshouses and whose name was used for the museum.
Geffrye was an English merchant who made much of his money from investment in transatlantic slavery; while it’s troubling that it took this long to detach his name from the complex, it is a step in the right direction, as cultural institutions across Britain finally confront the heritage of racism, oppression and exploitation that enabled so many of their buildings, not to mention collections.
The new museum entrance overlooking Hoxton Overground station. Photograph: Hufton + Crow
The new museum entrance, a linchpin of the project, opens up what was the back garden of the museum directly opposite the Hoxton Overground station, in order to improve visitor access and wayfinding. This entrance, while immensely practically helpful, in experience unfortunately pales in comparison to the original historic entrance set within a verdant landscaped quad on the other side of the site. Luckily this original entrance, and public space, will remain open; it’s one of the few places in London that manages to feel like a secret garden frozen in time – a moment of peace in an otherwise hectic urban environment.
The new station-side entrance is defined by tall, austere, dark grey-painted metal railings – which slide back to open – crowned by bright orange-red letters announcing the new name of the museum. This opens on to a universally accessible ramp which ascends between planted flower beds to the main entrance door, located in the museum’s Branson Coates extension.
There is a nice gesture on the entrance railings’ exterior – a slim stone ledge provides public seating and a place to rest – but it is difficult to see tall, dark-grey railings as inviting or permeable. Why dark grey, I ask? To reference the original iron railings along the Kingsland Road exterior, I’m told – although it’s worth noting those are shorter, positioned on a brick base and accompanied by a green border hedge.
Once inside the bright and airy new reception, located in the space which used to host the museum’s cafe, visitors have a range of route options to choose from. They can continue to the ground-floor galleries in the converted almshouses, turn into the rest of the Branson Coates extension and its exhibition spaces, or go downstairs to access the new lower-ground Home Galleries, the garden, or the new Studio.
The Studio opening on to the garden. Photograph: Hufton + Crow
The Studio and Learning Pavilion, located at either end of the museum’s garden, are subtle newbuild interventions that have been ‘stitched into the site’, explains Wright & Wright partner Naila Yousuf as we walk around the museum before opening. All newbuild interventions are completed in Staffordshire blue brick, which has an almost black appearance. Yousuf explains this was a deliberate choice to contrast with the original brick of the almshouses: ‘They’re not pretending to be original,’ she says.
The Studio and Learning Pavilion certainly are subtle, sleek and inoffensive additions – and no doubt had to be for heritage reasons – though it seems a shame that these dark structures couldn’t make more joyful contributions to the complex. Inside, the Studio provides flexible space for lectures, workshops and community events. Split into two parts with a folding wall, the interior comprises an oak floor, white walls and an acoustic ceiling, lit by skylights, clerestory windows and double doors leading on to the garden. At the other end of the garden, the Learning Pavilion is a kid-friendly airy space for educational activities that has a series of glazed double doors opening on to the garden and is partly clad in dark grey-stained Siberian larch.
The new Learning Pavilion, which opens on to the garden. Photograph: Hufton + Crow
Between these two new interventions lies not only the garden – which has been enhanced with widened paths of reclaimed bricks and new furniture made from metal and waste plastic – but also the new lower-ground visitor route through the Home Galleries. These form a colourful sequence of domestic-scale spaces for exploring various historical and contemporary aspects of the home by theme, from homelessness and immigration through to mental health, relationships and identity.
The Home Galleries occupy the excavated and re-established basement spaces of the former almshouses, which have been connected by openings enabling a single walk-through experience. Traces of domestic architecture remain through hints of fireplaces, and bronze strips embedded in the new polished screed floor which mark out the former partition walls between houses. Each house’s original door to the garden has been turned into a window enabling views out from the exhibition, orienting the visitor within the museum and crucially preventing a sense of claustrophobia which one senses would otherwise be created in these small spaces.
The Home Galleries. Photograph: Helene Binet
Midway through the Home Galleries, the basement spaces are interrupted by the undercroft of the central chapel which the almshouses were organised around. In this brick vaulted space, where wooden benches allow visitors to stop and pause, a new soundscape by writer Maria Fusco in collaboration with composer Olivier Pasquet has been installed.
At the end of the Home Galleries, where one can access the Learning Pavilion, a staircase or lift takes the visitor up to the ground floor where the original procession of London domestic interiors reconstructed from various historic periods – the Rooms Through Time – are found. These installations largely remain the same, albeit refreshed; one room is newly fitted out to display everyday objects that have had radically affected our home lives over time, while another room has been transformed into a new double-height reading lounge.
Here, alongside comfortable and welcoming seating, a striking oak staircase dominates the room, with integrated bookshelves and even a play nook for children. This is perhaps the only place in the museum where the experience of a (high-end) contemporary home is found; not as a preserved exhibit to observe, but as a space to relax, read and play in – like home. The eye-catching wooden staircase also takes visitors up to the first floor, which is newly publicly accessible with a small collections gallery and a library and study room that can be used by appointment.
The oak staircase in the double-height reading lounge. Photograph: Hufton + Crow
Meanwhile, in the Branson Coates extension – which since opening has been broadly dedicated to 20th-century domestic interiors, continuing the Rooms Through Time exhibition – two new rooms have been added which display a Victorian parlour and a 1970s front room curated by British playwright, artist and curator Michael McMillan.
In my lifetime at least, the Geffrye Museum was always a beautiful little enclave to visit in the busy Hoxton neighbourhood, and a charming wander through historic domestic scenes. What its renovation now enables is not only a more socially conscious and diverse interrogation of home as place and concept, but also an expansion of education and engagement activities to diversify this exploration and learning.
Top photograph by Hufton + Crow