Inside the Cinema Museum

One of London‘s most eccentric museums has won a temporary reprieve from closure. The Cinema Museum in Lambeth boasts an idiosyncratic collection of film memorabilia, including posters, art deco cinema chairs, ushers‘ uniforms from the 1940s and ‘50s, tickets, ashtrays and popcorn cartons, as well as an archive boasting hundreds of books, photos and 17 million feet of film.

  • Inside the Cinema Museum

    A 'Mutiny on the Bounty' display board, one of the hundreds of objects from the museum's collection

  • The centre was due to close this month after the building’s owners, the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, decided to sell up. But the trust has agreed to let the museum stay in the building for an extra two months, before selling it off at the end of May.

    Located in a musty former workhouse where Charlie Chaplin’s mother was once housed, the museum is one of London’s best-kept secrets – visited by about 15 people a week, mostly students and researchers.

    Ronald Grant, 71, the museum’s founder, has loved cinema since he helped out at his local picture house as a boy growing up in Banchory near Aberdeen. His carefully acquired collection now fills much of the 10,000sq ft building.

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    An old projector

    The museum is run as a charity, earning income is through syndicating pictures from its vast archive to national papers and magazines. Nothing is catalogued and there is no inventory, but ‘we know the collection very well,’ says Martin Humphreys, co-director for the past 30 years. If Martin and Ronald don’t find another building to house the museum and archive, it may get broken up and left to rot in storage.

    But they haven’t given up yet. ‘We’re hopeful – we’d like somewhere with a proper exhibition space,’ says Martin, ‘and now we have more time to raise funds and find a new building.’

    Martin showed Time Out some of his favourite pieces from the collection:

    Felix the Cat wood figurine

    ‘This mischievous cat was always getting into trouble and is utterly endearing. He was created by an Australian cartoonist and film entrepreneur, Pat Sullivan, in 1926. It has joints, so you can move his arms and legs and head. I like it because it captures the quality of the character really well. It would have belonged to a young kid and we’re lucky this one is in fairly good condition. There are only a few of them left; this one was found in an Edinburgh junk shop.’

    ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ display board

    ‘These display boards were used to advertise films. This one is for the 1935 version of “Mutiny…” starring Clark Gable; it comes from a picture house in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire. The decoration is art deco so it must have been made in the early ’30s and it’s absolutely lovely. We have a lot of similar pieces, but they went out of fashion in the ’60s.’

    Floral spray bottle

    ‘If you think about it, cinemas must have been pretty iffy places, what with smoking, wet overcoats and personal hygiene not being what it is today. This ’30s floral spray from a cinema in Aberdeen was used by the ushers to disguise the bad smells. Its scent is evocative of another era.’

    Architect’s suggested colour scheme

    ‘Many early cinemas were absolutely beautiful inside. We have a 1920s architect’s sketch for a planned interior that comes from a company called Woolfall and Rimmer Decorations in Southport. Hundreds of these mock-ups were suggested to a cinema owner before he made his choice.’

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    An usher's cap

    Ushers’ uniforms

    ‘Cinemas in the ’30s were fancy places. It was a bit like going to the theatre today. You were served by uniformed staff. There would be a commissionaire to greet you, a hat-check person and usherettes. The uniforms were part of a cinema’s identity. The ’60s saw a decline in formal cinema-going, although The Empire in Leicester Square had a commissionaire up until the ’90s. The majority of the uniforms we have date from the 1940s.’
    The Cinema Museum, The Masters House, The Old Lambeth Workhouse, SE11 (020 7840 2200/www.

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