Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Cinema Museum

2 Dugard Way (Off Renfrew Street)
London SE11 4TH
Monday September 30 2014

Firstly, a little aside into our recent media coverage: things have been quite peaceful since we finished with the buses in February 2014, and quietly started our Project to visit all of London’s museums and galleries (circa 250 in number) as somehow the more recent venture is seen as more mainstream and less ‘geeky’, and certainly attracts fewer followers.   However the party Political Conference season and build up to the next General Election has meant reporters have wanted to look at the Freedom Pass allocation and whether  politicians may target it as a selective or universal service.  A freelancer for ‘The Guardian’ newspaper included us in her September article which prompted the BBC ‘One Show’ to invite us as part of their celebration of 60 years since the Routemaster buses started running. Their plans were a little elaborate for the time we had but we agreed to give an update to the BBC website reporter, also a Jo,  as she had featured us back in August 2012, so today’s expedition was arranged with her in mind.

She joined Mary, Jo and Linda (and 63 Regular) for a booked tour at the Cinema Museum along with four other enthusiasts which made for an ideal group size.
Given how busy and traffic-heavy Elephant & Castle is, the Museum is beautifully quiet situated as it is in an area which once housed the Lambeth Workhouse, then the Lambeth Hospital. Some of these links are still maintained in Mary Sheridan House, the Child Development Centre for … Lambeth.

The Museum has a diagram of the workhouse built  to house 800 but usually holding up to 1400 people as  Lambeth then (as now) has never been a rich area. This very comprehensive website gives an overview of the history of the whole site (the second Workhouse to be built) but what remains  is the Master’s Building which was also the main Reception Centre, the listed premises to which the Cinema Museum (hitherto an extensive but essentially homeless collection) moved in 1998. The Victorians built so many of their public buildings with great civic pride though I don’t expect the destitute who came, or were sent here by the courts, saw it quite that way.  Amongst the many was Charlie Chaplin whose mother Hannah, previously a music hall singer had lost her voice and thus her ability to support her two boys.  For the younger residents an education was arranged in Hanwell, though Charlie found it excessively punitive.

 Lambeth seems to do little to honour its famous son but David Robinson’s book is the most accessible of the biographies.    

The Cinema Museum’s collection was originally the personal artefacts and memorabilia of Ronald Grant, who trained and worked as a projectionist in the Aberdeen area and who had always collected equipment and fittings, and indeed anything to do with the cinema going experience as it was from its early days – 1910 to the early 1980s. When most of the old cinemas started closing their doors, Ronald and Martin, our guide for today, drove around salvaging artefacts from the wrecking ball. They then added a significant amount to their already large personal collections when Ronald’s former employers around Aberdeen closed their cinema chain.

Once cinemas became purpose built  after 1909 with the Cinematograph Act ensuring a safer separation between the projectionist and the audience the Peoples’ Palaces proliferated and the Museum houses  old cinema seats (yes, red velvet) curtains (ditto) and a range of notices about performance times and seat prices – it would of course cost you more to sit further away and have more privacy – upcoming attractions and the film classifications, all of which Martin explained particularly for those too young to remember the continuous performances and smoke filled auditoria. The Twenties and Thirties were boom years and there is a rich collection of signage in all the best fonts… and you will know from previous blog entries how fond we are of characterful fonts.

There are lights, and that vital tool of the usherette’s trade – the company issue torch with which she ‘ushered’ you to a seat. There are some splendid uniforms too though the men seem to have had the better deal with rows of shiny brass buttons (why work on the  railways when you could be standing outside a cinema doing crowd control?).

The downstairs side rooms house the ‘stored collections’ some of which still need cataloguing: these include cinema books, periodicals, articles, photographic  publicity materials – often stills  from ‘forthcoming attractions’ – and a gallery of cinema buildings. There are of course very many projectors to reflect the proprietor’s former calling though I have to say to me one machine looks very much like another though Martin explained very carefully how the skill lay in making a performance ‘seamless’ when in fact the reels were changed every 20 minutes – these older style machines were then replaced by huge tower projectors or the more horizontal ’platter’ ones. It is very sobering to think that only two cinemas in London can now project FILM as opposed pressing a button for a digital presentation. At this point the archivist in the family usually asks whether we know how long this medium will last? Talking of old technologies the museum has some precursors of the sound track – namely phonograph recordings on fragile 78RPM discs which had to be synchronised with the usually 7 reel main presentation.  The audiences loved sound (so would you if you were not a very good reader of inter titles) so there was no going back after 1933, though Charlie Chaplin was a late convert.

The third element of the Museum is its collection of films, largely donated from private collections which folk were not supposed, by law, to have or keep.  The Cinema Museum has had European Funding and worked with overseas archives to restore a collection of early travelogues (a popular addition to the ‘main feature’ in days when few people travelled abroad) and a curiosity from still earlier days: part of the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection portraying daily life round Blackburn and the North-West in the early decades of the 20th century. 

After a corridor honouring Chaplin, but also housing a very Baron Frankenstein’s laboratory looking object called a Mercury Arc Rectifier (used to turn AC into DC current – the CM’s example is inert, but here is a video of somebody else’s working ), the tour finishes in the most wonderful room in the Museum which is the Chapel, doubtless built to make sure' the Poor' were duly grateful for their ‘lot’ each week. The walls are dotted with more exhibits and the empty film reels are echoed in the structure of the trussed roof – a serendipitous coincidence, which surely meant the ‘Collection had come home’. The Museum is now in a position to offer corporate hospitality and education events in this setting while their ‘artist in residence’ has created a room size,  as opposed to life-size, silhouette of Charlie Chaplin, which she hopes Lambeth Council will adopt and display.

After refreshments which are included in the entrance costs (£10 adults, £7 concessions) we returned to the cinema downstairs (which is really not smelly or smoky enough for the period it evokes!) to see 5 short films. The earliest newsreel of floods in Paris just glowed indicating how good black and white can look, while for this particular trio a farewell to the last tram (a Number 36) was particularly evocative.

The rich combination of historic setting with a range of evocative artefacts and carefully chosen films made for an unforgettable experience enhanced by Martin’s informative, fluent and personal commentary. Though appealing to the same nostalgia as the Brands and Packaging Museum this was so much better presented.  

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