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Homes from home – on house museums in lockdown

29 May 2020

The following is the editor’s letter from the June 2020 issue of Apollo. Subscribe here

Among the old haunts that I have dwelt on often in recent months are my favourite house museums. In this time of domestic detainment, of all museums these feel to me the most relatable: other houses, other living rooms, studies and bedrooms, other people’s lives. From the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, where I worked many years ago, to Emery Walker’s House in Hammersmith, with its triumphantly conserved Arts and Crafts interiors, such places are a consolation to the mind as it drifts back to their modest but magical environments.

Other people’s kitchens, too. Having time to cook every day has been one of the small privileges of the lockdown period, a welcome, creative intermission that punctuates the long slog of being shut away. In recent weeks, I have often thought of Lee Miller’s kitchen at Farleys, the farmhouse near the South Downs where she and Roland Penrose lived for several decades and now one of the most memorable house museums in the country. Like other first-rate museums of this type, such as Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, Farleys succeeds in convincing the visitor that it preserves the genius loci fostered by its notable inhabitants – a feeling enhanced by the knowledge that Miller and Penrose’s son, Antony Penrose, and granddaughter, Ami Bouhassane, have taken so much care in conserving and interpreting the house and its contents. I have written about Miller’s accomplishments as a chef for this issue.

House museums are among the cultural institutions whose survival I am most concerned about in the months and years to come. Many are privately run, and many rely heavily on visitor revenues and local supporters to continue their work. As with many small organisations in other sectors, there is often little provision in the budget for a rainy day, and so there are few cuts to be made to make up for lost revenue. With social-distancing measures likely to be in force for many months, it is difficult to imagine how the majority of such museums will soon be able to let visitors wander down their corridors and into their private nooks once more. These are intimate spaces by their very nature: they are houses. Just how feasible is a one-way system in the sepulchral chamber of the Soane Museum, for example?

As larger museums across Europe start to reopen, a quietly optimistic mood is palpable as they adjust to local regulations and welcome visitors back into their galleries. As many commentators have pointed out, the principle of social distancing is already among the expectations that many of us bring to a museum, however often the promise of a contemplative experience may be broken. At the Brandenburg State Museum for Modern Art in Cottbus, the Art Newspaper reports, visitors in pairs are invited to carry a pole or ribbon exactly 1.5m long as they walk through the displays (1.5m is the minimum distance imposed by the German government between people from different households). In coming months, many museums will no doubt implement comparable strategies to regulate crowds. There’s never been a better time to see the Mona Lisa.

If you can reach Paris, that is. With international travel restrictions in place between many countries, reopened museums have an opportunity – in fact, an imperative – to engage with their local audiences as never before, at least as far as their bricks-and-mortar operations are concerned. For the immediate future, the Uffizi is set to become a museum for Florence and Tuscany, the Louvre a place that Parisians might actually want to visit. Internationally renowned institutions have an unprecedented chance, albeit in difficult circumstances, to invigorate and inspire more people with the art on their doorsteps.

Most museums will need to rethink their plans and aspirations as our social and economic futures come into focus. We should be prepared for further cost-cutting, postponed capital projects, and fewer exhibitions as revenues trickle in and fundraising teams struggle. But we should also look forward to visiting those museums we can reach, and encourage initiatives that marshal existing resources – not least permanent collections – to replenish us with art. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I hope that house museums will be among them.

Following its closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted in substantial loss of revenue, Farleys House and Gallery has launched a crowdfunding appeal in the hopes of securing the future of the site. The fundraising target for the month-long ‘Help Farleys survive’ appeal is £25,000. Visit the Farleys website to learn more.