MOVIES Saving cinema

The unique Cinema Museum in a former Lambeth workhouse is fighting for survival. Simon Tait reports

There are museums that are created to fill a gap in the public understanding of history, some that arise out of personal enthusiasm, some that act as a community’s memory, some that shouldn’t really have happened at all. The Cinema Museum in Lambeth doesn’t fit into any of these categories: this is a museum that just had to be where it is, the extent and range of its collections a unique resource for both casual visitors and scholars.

And it has to be where it is if only because it is housed in the budding where the biggest name in cinema history, Charlie Chaplin, spent some months as an eight-year-old in this building with his mother, Hannah, and his half-brother Sidney. It used to be the Lambeth Workhouse, and it’s a period Chaplin never forgot and even recreated in his films.

But it might not be for much longer, even though it has offered more than £10m to buy the site from the owners, an NHS Trust. The museum, a charity, is one of about half a dozen bidders, and it may hear on Monday, December 11, the decision of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust 

The museum is based in the collections of Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries, compiled over more than 40 years and comprising over a million film stills, thousands of posters, 7,000 books, a room full of programmes and fan magazines dating back to the 1880s, and another room devoted to building histories.

It stayed a private collection, stored in the Brixton building that now houses the Black History Archive until its owners decided the public needed to have access. In 1998 it moved to its present home, at first on a five year lease, subsequently on a annual lease the last of which expires in March. A lot of the collection is not not seen by the public but is there for researchers, all on site.

It is run entirely by volunteers, is rather off the beaten track in Kennington, has guided tours, events programmes, open afternoons on the second Saturday of every month, and has 15,000 visitors a year.

On public display are everything to do with the cinema experience – huge projectors, staff uniforms, arts deco carpets, teapots in the shape of Odeons, Ritzys and couples on back row seats; actual cinema seats; signage; endless star photos; usherettes’ torches; tickets galore; ticket price boards; programmes ditto; posters ditto; a thorough display devoted to Charlie Chaplin; and in the tiny cinema showings of short films from the vast archive.

It has the expressed support of stars like Glenda Jackson, Mark Gatiss, Michael Palin and Michael Palin, and a petition signed by thousands.

The museum, says Martin Humphries, has been stifled by its lease arrangements, and in August in a policy switch the trust decided to dispose of the building with the intention to complete by the end of the year, a kick in the shins for the museum which has been trying to buy the building from the trust for a decade, and once almost succeeded.

Because it does not have the security of more than five years' tenure, it cannot apply for public funding. Therefore it cannot have staff to allow it to open more regularly, and cannot expand. If it does acquire the property it can extend behind to create a new ground floor exhibition gallery, and restore a derelict Victorian terrace on the site to make a separate Chaplin museum. The attraction of the building to a developer is limited, because it is listed Grade II, and it doesn’t not have to be sold to the highest bidder. The planning authority, Lambeth Council, is a staunch supporter of the museum that had expressed its belief in the importance of it to the community in written submissions to the owners  that said it wanted the museum to remain where it is.

“If we aren’t successful we’ll work with any developer or housing association that would like us to remain, and all we want is a sustainable future for the Cinema Museum” says Humphries.  “But if we're not here, the museum ceases to be and the collections will be dispersed.”


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