Frazer Swift, Head of Learning at the Museum of London visits Wardown House!

2 October 2017

Frazer Swift is the Head of Learning at the Museum of London and an associate tutor at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

The following article is from the Museum Journal (Issue 117/10, p48 - 51) and was written by Swift after he made an 'undercover' visit to Wardown House. 

An imaginative and quirky approach to redevelopment has made this venue feel more like a home.

Set at the heart of a busy park, Luton’s Wardown House Museum & Gallery looks and feels rooted in its local community. On the sunny day I visited, the museum’s cafe was spilling out onto a terrace and the doors of one of the galleries were open wide, allowing people to come and go with a sense of informality and trust – this set the tone for my visit.

The museum occupies an imposing Victorian house that was originally home to the family of Luton solicitor Frank Chapman Scargill. Wardown House later served as a First World War military hospital before becoming the town’s museum in 1931.

The redevelopment of the museum focused on reimagining the building as it might have been in Scargill’s day. There are no surviving images of the interior from that period, but a detailed inventory of each room in 1897 has provided the inspiration for the redisplay.

With details such as walking sticks by the door and specially designed wallpaper, the entrance hall creates the feeling of stepping into a grand late-19th century home. But on closer inspection the museum becomes apparent – a back-lit floorplan is embedded in the top of a piece of furniture and the portraits on the walls are of characters that visitors meet on their journey around the house. Even the CCTV screens monitored by front-of-house staff are disguised in a mahogany cabinet. Visitors quickly understand the rules of engagement in the rooms that follow, but the friendly staff didn’t leave this to chance and were keen to explain that I could touch everything, sit on the chairs and open the drawers.

Playful displays

The new rooms are cleverly designed and natural light streams in through the windows, adding to the sense of domesticity. There are no museum display cases, graphic panels or object captions to spoil the illusion. Instead, objects are displayed in period furniture and interactive exhibits become part of the fixtures and fittings. There are about 3,000 objects on display in the museum, 95% of which have never been seen by the public. They are discretely numbered, with information provided in pick-up booklets in magazine racks in each room. This is a nice idea, but I didn’t see many people using them. And having read how the museum worked with communities to create the displays, and about the Museum Makers initiative that saw volunteer numbers rise from 40 to 120, I expected the perspectives of local people to be reflected more obviously.

Objects have been selected to link with the original purpose of each room and provide a glimpse into the life of the house and town. The shelves of the billiard room feature sporting equipment and trophies and by sitting in armchair, visitors trigger recordings of memories about Luton Town football club, with voices emanating from the chair’s innards. The centerpiece of the room, as one might expect, is a billiard table – an impressive digital touch table that enables visitors to play billiards or explore the story of Luton via an intuitive map-based interface.

Visitors can discover pipes, snuff boxes and optical toys in the smoking room, which also includes a magic lantern-inspired projection about the history of the town. A table-top digital interactive provides access to the archives of the local newspaper, Luton News.

In the library, visitors first encounter one of several picture frames in the house that feature films of actors in role as historical characters. These are triggered by movement and the characters speak directly to visitors about the history of the building and museum. They are well done but I was surprised by the absence of subtitles or British Sign Language signing.

Visitors meet Thomas Bagshawe, the museum’s first director in the 1930s, and Lady Ella Sophia Keens, who became the first female mayor of Luton in1945. Scargill talks to people in the drawing room, while in the bathroom a First World War nurse reminds visitors to wash their hands as they enter. But it took me a while to work out that I needed to actually turn the basin taps to start the exhibit.

The elegant drawing room with its ornate ceiling showcases the decorative arts collections and the musical history of the area. Visitors can enjoy music from a gramophone, play a harp or listen to stories via a converted bugle. The museum’s cafe, in the adjacent dining room, keeps the same design approach, with exhibits such as cutlery, cigarette cards and thimbles displayed in tabletops.

Modern twist to tradition

The plushly carpeted staircase leads to three more rooms and an apparition of a stern woman dressed in black on the landing appears as visitors approach. This is popular, especially with children, who seemed convinced of her existence despite the visible ceiling-mounted projector.

The clinically decorated bathroom focuses on health and medicine during the first world war and features photographs on tiles and information in the toilet bowl and on towels.

This leads to the dressing room, with a rich selection of clothing from the costume collection and drawers of fans and gloves to explore.

The lady’s bedroom includes a role-play area, lace items displayed in a bed frame, toys in a crib and a dressing table with a hair brush that visitors can pick up to hear what daily life was like for a maid.

The Luton Life Gallery and the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment Museum are also on the first floor, but were not part of the redevelopment. They are more conventional and look jaded compared with the rest of the museum, with wordy text panels and the occasional tired mannequin and worn-out interactive. However, they have their strong points, such as the prominence of local people’s stories and a slick interactive touchscreen with 3D images of medals that users can manipulate.

In many ways, Wardown House is unashamedly traditional in that it uses collections to recreate the atmosphere of period rooms that reveal the everyday lives of people at the time. But there’s a modern, creative and playful twist, and the museum should be applauded for how it respects and trusts its visitors.

On the day of my visit the museum was clearly attracting diverse audiences who were enjoying a shared experience that celebrates their town. At this time of heightened concern for social cohesion, there’s a lot to be said for that.