Willesden Green Library was initially opened in 1894 following a poll of the local ratepayers. The library itself could therefore be the subject of this third instalment of ‘Odd’ Victorian Objects in Victorian Britain. However, this post is not going to focus on this building’s heritage, but a new addition to its recent re-development: The Brent Museum.
Located on the third floor of the new library in Willesden Green, the museum provides an overview of the history of the borough of Brent, which was established in 1965 when the boroughs of Willesden and Wembley were merged. Modern day Brent encompasses Kilburn, Willesden Green, Neasden, Harlesden, Wembley, Preston, Sudbury and Kenton.
Running right through the borough is a railway. Now the Jubilee and Metropolitan tube lines, this railway was initially part of the Metropolitan Railway that ran from Baker Street up to Harrow and beyond. Opened in stages from 1864 onwards, this railway plays a central role in Brent Museum’s narrative about the development of the area during the nineteenth century.
The Victorian section of the museum emphasises how the nineteenth century was a period of change and development in the region. It illustrates how the construction of the railway brought railway workers into these areas and resulted in the development of residential suburbs, as urban dwellers began to move out to places like Willesden Green that were suddenly much easier to get to from central London. In order to convey this narrative, the museum uses a number of every-day objects, such as household furniture, decorative items, clothes and tools.
Why then, given the apparent normality of these things, have I chosen this exhibit as a topic for this series of blog posts on ‘Odd’ Victorian Objects?
Firstly, although many of the objects would have been very normal in the day-to-day lives of Victorian residents, the museum emphasises how ‘odd’ they must appear to contemporary visitors, highlighting the differences between life then and life now. This leads me to my second point, the use of objects in this exhibit highlights the inherent ‘oddness’ of objects. Thirdly, and finally, it is pleasantly odd to see very ordinary and well-used objects on display in the Brent Museum. It is not always common for museums to collect objects that have been used and therefore appear damaged or broken.
In a cabinet representing life in a railway cottage there are many references to things used in Victorian homes before the invention of staple contemporary technologies. The display shows a carpet beater and emphasises its role in house keeping before the days of the vacuum cleaner. It contains candles and snuffers, noting their necessity in days before electric light. And it comments on the importance of the ceramic hot water bottle when there was no central heating.
These comparative comments could potentially result in a-historical reflections that over emphasise the strangeness of material things that were actually very normal, and even banal, in Victorian society. However, theses objects actually help to draw the visitor in, helping them to better understand a Victorian lifestyle through reflection on its difference from their own. Although they are presenting, a potentially introducing, these objects to visitors who may consider them odd in light of their own experience, by discussion them in relation to objects that are so ordinary and integral to contemporary life, they demonstrate their banality within Victorian society.
Although the material things on display have initially been curated to tell a particular narrative of the meeting of the city and the countryside, the intrinsic oddness of objects allows the curators to covertly present a plethora of alternative narratives for visitors to engage in.
Take for example the case dedicated to middle-class living in this area of London. Here a range of different objects are displayed, including tea services, a clock, a record player, an Edison Cylinderphonograph, paintings and decorative lusters that sit on the mantel piece. These objects, and the labels that accompany them, allow the curators to engage in alternative stories such as the development of technology in the Victorian home, aesthetic taste and social practices.
This is a shame, because it is often these objects that provide really important insights into the everyday practices of the people of the past.
Of particular note, is the Victorian day dress that is displayed in the museum. At the bottom of the dress a dust braid was sewn into its hem in order to prevent the dress from fraying. Such practical solutions to the maintenance of clothing in this period are often overlooked because material examples have rarely survived. Therefore, odd everyday objects like this in the Brent Museum make a welcome change from the norm. .The Brent Museum presents a whole range of very normal Victorian objects, demonstrating how even these can be oddities for historians interested in the nineteenth century.
The Brent Museum is open daily, 9am to 8pm Monday to Friday and 10am to 5pm Saturday and Sunday.