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Museum of the Home seeks views on Sir Robert Geffrye statue

MuseumofthehomeThe Museum of the Home, formerly the Geffrye Museum of the Home, is consulting over the future of the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye which adorns the building amid his links to the slave trade.

Sir Robert (1613–1703) was an English merchant, involved with the slave trade. He made his fortune with the East India Company and the Royal African Company. The London buildings in which the Museum of the Home has its home, are almshouses built in 1714 with money left by Sir Robert.

The statue is set into the building facing Kingsland Road. It is above the central door to the chapel, and as placed to commemorate his legacy in providing the funds for the almshouses.

‘As the Museum of the Home we are aware of how surroundings impact both shared identity and a sense of self. Homes should be welcoming places of shelter and security, love and comfort. This is what we want the museum to represent,’ says Sonia Solicari, Museum of the Home director.

‘We know that for many the statue of Sir Robert Geffrye on our building represents abuse, oppression and the history of thousands of enslaved people torn from their homes and families and forced to work in appalling conditions. We welcome this important debate and want to ensure the voices of our communities are heard.’

Almshouses are charitable housing provided to people in need, who belong to a particular community. In this case the residents were associated with the Ironmongers' Company.

The almshouses were built in 1714 with fourteen houses. Each house had four rooms. Each room usually had just one inhabitant. So there was room for around 50 pensioners.

All rooms came without furniture, residents had to buy their own. They received a pension of £6 per year, 6 bags of coal and free accommodation.

In the 1700s the surrounding area was largely rural. Market gardeners cultivated the land, supplying Londoners with fresh vegetables and herbs.

As London expanded during the 1800s, the area became the hub of London's furniture and clothing trades. Terraced housing, factories and workshops replaced the farmland.

By 1910, the area had become one of the most heavily populated areas of London with severe overcrowding and little sanitation. The Ironmongers' Company decided to sell up and move the residents to the cleaner, safer suburbs in the country.

In 1912 the London County Council bought the building and gardens. The main reason was to save the gardens which represented 14% of the open space in Hackney, a densely populated area of London. Members of the Arts and Crafts movement persuaded the LCC to convert the almshouses into a museum.

On 2 April 1914 the Geffrye Museum opened to the public as a museum of furniture and woodwork. It was a resource for the many local people who worked in the East End furniture industry.

In the mid-1930s the focus shifted to a younger audience, particularly school children.

Molly Harrison, an educational pioneer, developed the museum's learning services. She led the way in making museums centres for learning and education.

Marjorie Quennell, the museum curator, created a chronological run of living room displays. These were a unique resource for learning about the history of domestic life and everyday things.

The museum remained open throughout WWII, closing for just a few months for air raid shelters to be built. The shelter dug into Kingsland Gardens held up to 700 people. Over the years the museum evolved, presenting paintings, furniture and decorated arts in the context of living rooms.

An extra wing was added with 20th century period rooms and spaces for learning and exhibitions in 1998. The herb garden and the period gardens were opened to the public in the late 1990s. One of the 14 almshouses was restored to show the living conditions of former residents in the 1780s and 1880s. To reflect the museum's focus on home and home life, the museum became the Geffrye Museum of the Home in 2011.

It is due to reopen later this year as the Museum of the Home. It will have new galleries and learning spaces, a new cafe, entrance hub and a collections study room. Its purpose is to reveal and rethink the ways we live and think about home.

The consultation ends on 3 July.

Image: Museum of the Home/Morley von Sternberg