To the Cinema Museum in South London, me not knowing what to expect other than it’s threatened with closure. And after many wrong turnings around Elephant and Castle I fall into a lost world – a world before 1980’s multiplexes and Hollywood blockbusters – a world of Art Deco Odeons and huge projectors and old-fashioned film stars singing soupily of ‘Pennies from Heaven’, a world beautifully documented by the Cinema Museum – but not for long since the museum itself is now threatened with closure.
All museums, even the mighty British Museum, go through the same life cycle. They begin as collections brought together by geeks and enthusiasts and it’s only later in their lifecycle (if at all) that they acquire fancy showcases and sophisticated graphics. But often it’s that early phase that has the most charm, as the Cinema Museum perfectly illustrates.
So picture a sprawling collection laid out by type – all the huge old projectors together, all the film posters, all the teapots showing King Kong, and all the signs with their beautiful 1930’s lettering, saying ‘Circle This Way Please’. And imagine the sounds of a tinkling piano that used to accompany the talkies, whilst a film buff shows you round and shares his stories with you. All this inside a part of the old Lambeth Workhouse so around you are the high ceilings, the echoing corridors and the old brick-built walls. It’s the workhouse to which little Charlie Chaplin was sent when his mother became destitute.
The best bit of the visit is the big hall upstairs where the reels go slowly round and round, old films play, someone dishes up cups of tea and slices of cake, and there are cinema tickets and ashtrays and popcorn machines and an usherette’s hat, and everything swims in a yellow light and a cinematic gloom, though outside it’s the middle of the day.
This is a ‘thing-world’ and as always there’s something magical about it. ‘Thing-worlds’ take you back in time quicker than anything else that I know of, except maybe novels (another cheap and amazing art form) and films themselves. Because at the end of the visit we sit down to watch old shorts from back in the fifties, the best of which is a black and white film from 1952, called ‘London’s Last Tram’ and marking the last day of the old London trams. Even then the Cockney world of ‘Mary Poppins’ was vanishing; now it has gone utterly and completely.
And so also will this museum unless we fight to keep it. The building it sits in, the old Lambeth Workhouse, is a valuable bit of real-estate in the middle of London. No wonder its owners want it back. Because this is another threat to museums, the way that the buildings they sit in keep increasing in value. Museums have always ended as well as started but right now it feels like there’s more of the first and less of the second. In fact, it feels as if London is going through one of its periodic phases of tearing down the past and the Cinema Museum is collateral damage.
The recent report from the DCMS highlights the threats to the survival of Local Authority museums, but many small enthusiasts’ museums are also teetering on the brink. When a small museum ends its collections are usually dumped, sold off or put into storage. But that storage is sometimes an old garage with no environmental controls and where their significance is easily forgotten.
Human beings need ‘thing-worlds’ to take us back in time. They are one of the things that make us human.