Long Reads

Curating with local communities at the Museum of the Home

Portrait of curator Louis Platman

With support from an Art Fund New Collecting Award, the Museum of the Home has worked with its local communities to tell more inclusive stories.

A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2024 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

When the Museum of the Home reopened its doors in 2021 after a major redevelopment, its new Home Galleries introduced an array of diverse depictions and stories of home that were more representative of local communities in Hackney, east London, where the museum is based. The cross-cultural appeal of the new displays did not, however, extend to the existing period rooms, which, as curator Louis Platman acknowledges, were conspicuously ‘white and middle class’.

The exception was the vibrant 1970s front room curated by artist and academic Michael McMillan, which explores the migrant experience of African Caribbean families in the UK. Filled with objects including a vintage 1950s radiogram and crochet doilies set against brightly patterned wallpaper, it has been the most popular of the 20th-century rooms.

‘It’s that type of lived experience and emotion that people wanted to see replicated across other rooms,’ explains Platman, who worked with colleagues to consult local audiences about the kinds of stories they thought were missing and the types of homes they wanted to see represented. ‘We wanted to shift up the rooms to tell as many relevant stories of home as possible.’ 

Spotted lacquer pot, Rajasthan, c1850
Courtesy Museum of the Home

From 23 July, visitors to the museum will be able explore five brand-new period rooms and two reconfigured spaces. Renamed Real Rooms, the dynamic displays represent the culmination of a two-year project for Platman, who received an Art Fund New Collecting Award in 2022 (made possible by generous individuals and trusts, including the Wolfson Foundation, the Ruddock Foundation for the Arts and the Coral Samuel Charitable Trust) to support his research and expand the museum’s holdings with acquisitions that reflect east London’s diverse communities.

‘We wanted to get local people involved at every level,’ he says. ‘The award allowed us to run community sessions and enlist eight Community Authors – critical friends who have played an active role in reshaping the rooms, ensuring they are representative, accessible and inclusive.’ It also helped the museum implement a collecting scheme centred on donations from the community. ‘We want people to know we value their donations as much as buying a painting at auction,’ he says. 

The new 1910s room focuses on a Jewish family living in the East End. ‘It centres on a Friday-night Shabbat meal and visitors are invited to sit at the dinner table,’ says Platman. Among objects acquired for this room are traditional Kiddush cups and silver salt and pepper pots inscribed with Hebrew scripture.

Silver salt and pepper pots and decorative tray with Hebrew verse, Israel, early 20th century
Courtesy Museum of the Home

The 1950s room is dedicated to London’s Irish community and features the bedroom and bathroom of a newlywed couple. Moving into the 21st century, the 2000s room spotlights LGBTQ+ communities and the queer nightlife scene in Hackney (and was also supported by a campaign on Art Fund’s crowdfunding platform, Art Happens), while the contemporary room draws inspiration from the area’s large Vietnamese community. There is even a speculative room of the future, set in 2049. The 1970s room remains but is expanded to include an accessible garden.  

‘We wanted to make the spaces more immersive,’ Platman explains. ‘People are able to physically access about half of each room now; some parts are fully interactive and include oral histories.’ In the 1870s room, they are changing whose story is told. ‘It’s still a white middle-class family home, but we are focusing on an Indian ayah who travelled back with the family from India to London to look after the children,’ Platman says. Antique Indian objects acquired for this room include a lacquer jewellery pot and a decorative brass oil lamp. 

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Community Author Julia Thanh worked closely with the Vietnamese community to help develop the contemporary room. It recreates a British Vietnamese family’s living room and kitchen, complete with cooking sounds and smells. Here, an important acquisition is a karaoke machine. ‘When Vietnamese people came to the UK as refugees in the 1980s, they had to create their own communities, and singing brought them together,’ explains Thanh. ‘Growing up, I remember a friend’s family having weekly karaoke sessions.’

Another is a small plastic stool synonymous with Vietnamese cooking. ‘When my mum and her friends came over to London, they continued to sit on these stools’, she says. Thanh’s father worked as a dim sum chef; after work, he made dumplings for friends and his 1970s scales are also on display. ‘The Vietnamese community have been relatively invisible in the mainstream; this room brings our history to light.’   

And what does Platman hope visitors will take away from the new displays? ‘A lot of these stories don’t get told in museums. I hope they help people see how important their own stories of home are.’  

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About the author
David Trigg
A writer, critic and art historian based in Bristol.
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