Smaller museums and galleries often get overlooked in the national and international press. In a new series, Apollo asks museum directors and curators what makes their small wonders so unique. Helene Alexander is the director and founder of The Fan Museum in Greenwich
Tell us a bit about the history of the museum…
Since I am also one of the founders of this museum, I can tell you exactly how The Fan Museum came about… I had been collecting fans for many years and by the 1980s the collection numbered over 1000 fans – mostly 18th century. In 1985 a ‘windfall’ meant my husband and I could contemplate founding what was then the only fan museum in the world; which is why it is titled The Fan Museum.
What makes this museum unique?
Fans are the most varied of artefacts and it has taken a lifetime of study to realise how much unsubstantiated information has been hauled around over the years due to a lack of historic and geographic knowledge.
How does it relate to the local area?
The Fan Museum is situated in historic Royal Greenwich, a stone’s throw from the National Maritime Museum and Cutty Sark. There is no competition between the subjects and, therefore, The Fan Museum, located in two beautifully restored townhouses, is an added amenity for the area.
How did you come to work here?
Through my knowledge and love of the subject, plus over 13 years experience working as a volunteer in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
What are the greatest challenges of running a small museum?
Finance is always a challenge and recruiting the right staff, both paid and voluntary – basically running a harmonious household.
What is your personal highlight from the collection?
A fan leaf, Landscape in Martinique, signed and dated Paul Gauguin.
How well do you feel you know the collection? Does it continue to surprise you?
All the fans are my children! I know them intimately and I know where to find them, I know how to care for them – but I love some better than others.
How has the museum developed during your tenure?
Since recruiting our curator Jacob Moss in 2010, the museum has been able to develop a considerable number of initiatives which were in the pipeline but were not implemented for lack of resources.
And what does the future hold for The Fan Museum?
The museum has gone from strength to strength. Recognition in many places has led to 30% increase in visitors in the last year alone.
Helene Alexander is the director and founder of The Fan Museum in Greenwich.
‘She changed how we encounter sculpture’ – remembering Phyllida Barlow (1944–2023)