A few weeks ago I went and visited National Trust’s Sutton House. Which, most simply, is a tudor merchant’s house, but is actually much more than that. There are several interesting features to the house that make this a bit different than many other historic houses, and really drew my interest, although there were a few things that maybe could have been improved too.
The route around the house was really well done, which made the visit easy, making sure we were able to visit all the rooms- something that can be a bit confusing when entering a massive historic house with multiple doors, rooms, and hallways and you’re not sure which way to go.
One of the most interesting features throughout the house could already be found in the first room. Throughout, there are opportunities to see the many layers of building fabric in the house. Sometimes this is less obtrusive, as in this first room where you could open a few of the wood panels to see the bricks and plaster underneath, or in other rooms which have been left much more unrestored, so that you can see all the layers of wood, wallpaper, plaster, nails… This gives the opportunity to not only envision the house as it was during the time it was constructed, through period rooms and interpretation, but also to think about the history and construction of the house. I think Sutton House would be a great teaching tool for museum studies, conservation, heritage and architectural students.
Besides these opportunities to learn more about the building itself, there are also several good examples of interpretation throughout- notably in the kitchen, but in several activity boxes in various rooms around.
The interpretation in the kitchen not only explained life in a tudor kitchen, but had several different activities too- matching, guessing, smells, pull out drawers, etc. This added a bit of fun, as well as being educational! My only thing here was that on a gloomy day the kitchen (and in other rooms too) it was very dark, and so made it hard to read all of the interpretation and activities without my phone flashlight. This was even worse in parts of the cellar- in which there were also uneven floors, and a couple of missing bricks. A bit dangerous there!
Unfortunately, some of the interpretation in the cellar was also a bit amiss, although this largely had to do with lighting, and some odd placements, that again made it hard to read, as well as some just outdated signage, although the information was actually quite interesting.
Another really interesting feature of the house overall was that multiple time periods from the house were represented. One room might be tudor… and the next might be a recreation of the 80’s! This is when the house was taken over by squatters, protesting expensive housing in London, and turning the place into a work of art.
I think this is important- that the whole history of the house should be represented in some way. Maybe not always to this extent, but at least with some interpretation. This helps, to some extent, bring a historic house to life, because it is then more than a static day in the past- it represents an evolution.
There were also several contemporary art exhibitions in the house, which I think made a good start at connecting current issues with the past. One installation represented the current refugee crisis, and compared this somewhat to the occupation of the house by jacobites. I think the connection could have been stronger, but this is a good foray into making museums more relevant, contemporary spaces, where current and sometimes difficult issues can be explored. There were also some great installations in the outside ‘Breaker’s Yard’ including the nicest caravan you may ever see, and it looked like quite a bit of upcoming programming- such as a swing dance night.
Overall, while improvements at Sutton House could be made (as at every museum and historic site!) I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and exploring the differences here than in many other historic houses. I highly recommend a visit!