The Museum’s history
Being housed in former almshouses, however, the Museum of the Home has its own history too. The eighteenth-century retirement home was funded by a bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye (1613-1703), a wealthy merchant who had made his fortune in part through ‘his active investment in the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans.’ This is acknowledged throughout the museum and its grounds with a certain amount of embarrassment. Various explanatory boards and plaques are strategically placed around the property, and more action to tackle the building’s uncomfortable history is yet planned.
Having been taking over by London City Council in the early twentieth century, the building was converted into an exhibition space. From 1914 until 2019, it was called the Geffrye Museum, although Geffrye is ‘not connected to the founding of the Museum or its collections.’ During a period of refurbishment it also had a name change before reopening to the public in summer 2021.
A replica statue of Geffrye, dating to the early eighteenth century, meanwhile, is still displayed in its original spot above the doorway to the chapel. According to a decision by the Museum’s board taken in October 2021, acknowledging the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, this too is to be removed, or rather relocated to a less prominent place, where the Museum ‘can better tell the full story of the history of the buildings and Robert Geffrye’s life, including his involvement in transatlantic slavery.’ These are actions which show an increasing awareness of the problematic nature of certain historical figures and their legacies, and I am sure a lot of other sites too will change their policies in years to come.
As the character of museums change so does the way in which they relate to their own history and the way in which they are funded. Far from being stuffy and static documenters of the distant past museums too are living things which evolve with the people who visit and maintain them.