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© Lynsey Ford/Culture Trip
© Lynsey Ford/Culture Trip
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Can London's Unique Cinema Museum Be Saved?

Picture of Lynsey Ford
Updated: 23 January 2018
The priceless movie memorabilia repository and film archive in Kennington faces a fight to stay open.

The Cinema Museum in Kennington, London, is a magical treasure trove of British film memorabilia and archive of films and other materials from the 1890s through the present day. Founded in 1986 by Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries, the museum has resided over the last 19 years at 2 Dugard Way, the former site of the Lambeth Workhouse where Charlie Chaplin once stayed.

The museum is currently in jeopardy, however, since there is a strong possibility it will be displaced from its historic premises in March.

Amazing archive

Grant began collecting film memorabilia when he was a 15-year-old apprentice projectionist for James F. Donald’s Scottish cinema chain Aberdeen Pictures Limited in the 1950s. He acquired projectors, usherette outfits, publicity stills and art deco signage.

As well as these artefacts, the museum’s display cabinets contain donated objects—including a collection of kitsch cinema teapots and rare purchases, such as 75 Edwardian films made by Lancastrian moviemakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. Grant’s archive has grown massively over the last seven decades. It holds 17 million feet of film, a comprehensive database of 50,000 American, Asian, and European titles, and a million images.

Assorted picturehouse memorabilia at the Cinema Museum
Assorted picturehouse memorabilia at the Cinema Museum | © Lynsey Ford/Culture Trip

Visitors to the museum must make an appointment for a 90-minute guided tour, during which they are able to watch a selection of short films from the 1910s to the 1960s. Under high beams and neon lighting, the upper part of the museum’s hall of the Master’s House provides an open space for family screenings, afternoon tea, fundraising galas, and film lectures. Assisted by 70 dedicated volunteers, the museum hosts 350 events for 30,000 visitors every year.

Charlie was here

The Grade II-listed Victorian building first opened its doors to the destitute in 1873. The Lambeth Workhouse, operating between the so-called the Master’s House, Male Receiving Wards, and Admin Block, where seven-year-old Chaplin spent three weeks with his brother and mother. He left the workhouse in June 1896.

A permanent gallery at the museum is dedicated to Chaplin, whose stark Dickensian childhood was marred by poverty, his father’s alcoholism, and his mother’s mental illness. The gallery showcases a variety of stills, posters, and books chronicling Chaplin’s rags to riches journey from Lambeth to Hollywood. Artist Anna Odrich has designed a ghost-like silhouette sculpture of Chaplin as “The Little Tramp” that was commissioned for Lambeth residents; it stands five feet five inches, which was Chaplin’s height. The gallery also houses one of the Little Tramp’s movie-prop canes.

An original rendering of Charlie Chaplin at the Cinema Museum
An original rendering of Charlie Chaplin at the Cinema Museum | © Lynsey Ford/Culture Trip

As a registered charity without public funding, the museum also accommodates 12 community outreach projects for Lambeth and Southwark residents. One such venture is the Memory Project, which focuses on the sensory needs of dementia sufferers.

Lease expiring

Despite offering a vital lifeline to vulnerable London residents, the museum faces the possibility of closure when its current lease with the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) expires in March 2018. Though SlaM had initially promised to sell the museum the Master’s House and the Male Receiving Wards, and then the whole site, it is currently trying to sell the property on the open market.

In response to SLaM’s uncompromising position, museum volunteer Liz Waldy has created an online petition asking Dr. Matthew Patrick of the NHS trust and the SLaM board to honor his promise. More than 26,000 signatures have been collected, including those of director Ken Loach and actor-writers Mark Gatiss and Robin Ince.

Assorted picturehouse and print memorabilia at the Cinema Museum
Assorted picturehouse and print memorabilia at the Cinema Museum | © Lynsey Ford/Culture Trip

Kevin Brownlow, the distinguished silent film historian and curator of films at the museum’s regular Kennington Bioscope event, is worried by the prospect of the museum’s closure.

“The British destroy their old buildings with the same carelessness as the Americans, and then a lot of money goes into mourning over what has been lost and trying to revive it—it’s called the heritage industry,” Brownlow says.

Chaplin family support

“Lambeth endured some of the heaviest bombing of the war, and by a miracle this picturesque Victorian building escaped. But it seems its time has come. Ron Grant and Martin Humphries will be invited to give talks all over the country on the much-missed Cinema Museum and they will probably be offered MBEs for their hard work across the decades. The rest of us? We will just be bereft.”

The descendants of Charlie Chaplin have written an open letter in support of the museum’s bid to remain open, considering it the nearest thing to a Chaplin museum. For Victoria Thierrée Chaplin, visiting her father’s former workhouse was “a penetrating and moving experience. Walking through those buildings provided the most vivid indication of how destitute Victorian Londoners were handled. Rooms were filled with marvellous cinema memorabilia giving great life to the place—offering a step back in time. We discovered so much.”

Signage, a cinema bill, and a movie annual at the Cinema Museum
Signage, a cinema bill, and a movie annual at the Cinema Museum | © Lynsey Ford/Culture Trip

Jane Chaplin, one of Victoria’s sisters, warns of the negative cultural impact the museum’s closure would have upon the wider community of film lovers in the capital. “It would be a huge loss to the neighbourhood, the City of London, to tourists and to Londoners,” she says. “It is culture, and it offers free tickets to those on low income. How awesome that is.”

Staying optimistic

Martin Humphries explains why he remains optimistic the museum can be saved. “The Cinema Museum has merged with Family Mosaic [part of the Peabody Group, a housing association committed to developing and rebuilding homes for London residents to address the housing crisis]. We submitted a bid [on December 6, 2017 to purchase the site, and we are on the shortlist of four possible purchasers]. We are hopeful that there will be a positive outcome for SLaM, Lambeth Council and the Cinema Museum.”

The film historian Ian Christie has paid tribute to the museum’s tenacity in the face of great uncertainty during the digital age. “The strengths of the museum lie in its display of the material history of popular filmgoing—much of its scavenged from closing cinemas—together with extensive photographic, journal, and ephemera holdings, which are available for consultation by researchers,” Christie says.

Vintage images of Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and William Powell above man-made wooden cinema seats
Vintage images of Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, and William Powell above man-made wooden cinema seats | © Lynsey Ford/Culture Trip

“All of this has been achieved on a shoestring,” Christie continues. “It represents a real commitment to keeping alive the traditional culture of cinema. Since the London Science Museum’s moving image collection was moved to Bradford in the early 1980s and the London Film Museum [in Covent Garden] is now devoted exclusively to James Bond props and memorabilia, the Cinema Museum alone offers a visible, visitable record of cinema’s early history. Its loss would impoverish London further.”

The Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way, Lambeth, London SE11 4TH. Tel: +44 20 7840 2200. Email: Hours: 10am–8pm.