Sir John Soane’s Museum

I love the Soane! A museum in London, it is such an interesting and unique place. There’s really nowhere quite like it.

But wait! you say, Isn’t it just another historic house?!

It is indeed a historic house. But it’s not quite like any other you will have seen. Where else can you experience an architect’s own vision, surrounded by architectural fragments used historically (and now) as a teaching collection, an Egyptian sarcophagus, and a fantastic collection of Hogarth’s and Canaletto’s? It’s a bit of a bizarre place, but also so fantastic as you wind your way through the sometimes tiny spaces, and figure out how it all really fits together. It is also the smallest national museum.

Sir John Soane’s Museum by Marc Atkins / Art Fund 2017

Full disclosure: when I lived in London I volunteered here for several months, though it was one of my favourite places long before then.

It’s so awesome to hear that they have been nominated for Museum of the Year! This comes on the back of a lot of hard work and changes, restoring previously closed spaces, including the private apartments, which I was fortunate to see (and help give tours of!) just before I left.

So, what is Sir John Soane’s Museum, exactly?

Most simply, it is the house of Sir John Soane, who was an extraordinarily important architect. But it goes so much deeper than that, which helps explain the bizarre nature of it. It was also his studio, display room, and a teaching space.

Many of the rooms are crowded with art, artifacts, and objects (much beyond what was even normal for the time period). This was due to Sir John’s collecting and exhibiting nature. Because of his own upbringing, he felt it was important that students have access to at least fragments of real architectural masterpieces, even if they couldn’t afford to go and see the whole in the original location.  Soane was also friends with many other architects and artists, and acquired many pieces personally, including the Hogarth paintings.

The painting room, where the Hogarths are displayed, at one point contained more paintings than the National Gallery! While a fairly small room, Soane put his genius to work and devised panels that could be opened and closed to reveal more paintings, and to let in more light. (This room also often elicits literal gasps and wows. What I call a museum moment)

Room features throughout the house also show his genius with light at a time before electricity. He often incorporated windows, skylights, and concave mirrors to maximize on any natural daylight.

The architectural collection at first looks a bit like a random disaster, but in fact it all fits together, whether by theme, material, or symmetry. It was all done thoughtfully and with purpose, to the point that Soane himself wrote guidebooks for visitors to the house! As much as possible has been left how Soane left it, or is in the process of being restored back to his original vision. Many parts of the guidebook have been taken from his own.

I do very much recommend the guidebook! It definitely helps you find your way through the house, as well as provide much needed context (and/or ask the visitor assistant questions! seriously!). In this regard, when I was in London I had one friend visit and then complain that there weren’t labels on anything to explain what they were.

  1. This definitely isn’t a traditional museum. Remember, the collection was largely for teaching architectural students
  2. Most house museums don’t have labels anywhere
  3. The sheer number of object labels required would just get lost in everything, and would completely detract from the spaces; the information they might contribute would not be worth the detriment to the experience. But again, this is where the guidebook and visitor assistants come in!

I know that means asking a stranger a question, but I promise its worth it. And you weren’t going to read hundreds and hundreds of labels anyway.

I am more than sure I originally had much more to say about the Soane, labels, and visiting it, but at this point, it’s sadly been more than a year since I was there!!  I certainly recommend it though if you have an hour or two in London. It’s definitely an experience.

Have you been to the Soane? What did you think? What are your thoughts on labels vs no labels?


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