Musings on a Still Life Drama

The Dennis Severs’ House in London, UK, is a bit of a unique experience. I was there a few hours ago with a friend, and I’m a bit torn on what to think of it.

An excerpt from the website:

The experience is conducted in silence. Its level is poetic and unlike anything, so works best on those who are endowed, willing and able to meet it halfway. The house’s motto is “you either see it, or you don’t”. Post-materialist, it seeks to remind the visitor of a specific thing: what we cannot see is essential to what we do.

Be warned, it is a mistake to trivialise or pigeonhole the experience into any of the mothball camps: “heritage”, “local history”, “antiques”, “lifestyle” or “museum”. A visit requires the same style of concentration as does an exhibition of Old Masters.

Dennis Severs called his unique spectators sport “still-life drama”, and his goal was to provide his visitors with a rare moment in which to become as lost in another time as they appear to be in their own. He proved that the formula amounts to the same in any time, that getting caught up in it all is what we call “now”.

Basically, you have become a participant in an extremely elaborate art piece, invited to use your senses and imagination to reconstruct the past. & it is a lovely experience. Lit by candlelight, with many different smells, you explore the rooms of the house, an observer, a participant, a detective.

Some visitors though, might think something is missing though, despite the experience. Should you be hunting for clues? Is it a murder mystery? You are supposed to be active in this experience, but not this active. You’re an active observer, if that’s such a thing.

Other visitors may be confused as to the fact that this looks and feels like a historic house museum, but as the excerpt above adamantly states, is not a historic house museum. You will not learn why the ceilings in the basement are so low, or what that artifact is, or any historical facts, beyond what you already know and can make connections with. I could see how this might be frustrating for some people, as it was for me at times- but I think this was particularly due to my background, having worked in several museums, including a historic house. I was alternately caught between the atmosphere, and wondering about the damage to antiques/artifacts, and then trying to remind myself that this was not meant as a historic house museum.

This is certainly to be admired for the immense amount of work that went into the experience by the artist who originally lived here and constructed/crafted the experience. And it does work as an immersive experience. I think possible shortcomings, although, again, I do realize this is not the intention, is the lack of any sort of available information, particularly if visitors are used to historic house museums, or are expecting this info. Would there by any way to include this after the experience is over, so as not to disrupt the still life drama, but still to satisfy those questions?

I think there may be a happy medium to be had out of this experience as well. Where some might be confused or underwhelmed by this elaborate still life, and some are underwhelmed by the traditional historic house museum, and its sometimes too-clinical feel, I think combining the two approaches would broadly appeal to more visitors.

I think this immersive aspect of flickering lights, voices, sounds, smells, would so help many house museums come more alive (although some have made good attempts at this, but still may who have not yet attempted for various reasons), and therefore offer more appeal- becoming more relatable. Lots of unexplored potential here.

Overall, a very interesting experience, which I would recommend to anyone visiting London and looking for a bit of a different experience. Keep an open mind, explore, and enjoy. And if you’re a museum professional, particular someone from a historic house museum, maybe consider how you can apply some of the things to your own work, to create a more relatable, realistic, and immersive experience for your visitors.

Have you visited the Dennis Severs house? What did you think?


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