Whether it be stamps, stickers or small plastic figures, many of us have fond memories of our childhood collections. For some, these collections continue into adulthood, taking on a new life in the shape of more expensive objects. For others, these collections remain memories, with past treasures now dispersed between old lofts, charity shops and the excited hands of new owners. For a small minority, these collections become something else – something which defines a large part of their adult life. For museum owners Jan and Graham Upton, I suspect that the latter may be the case.
As children, both Jan and Graham were avid collectors of things from days gone by. Growing up together and then marrying consequently meant the union of two people, and two large collections. During my visit, Graham explained how their collections continued to expand over the years, with friends commenting on their home’s resemblance to a museum. Realising that the collection had become more than a simple accumulation, the couple decided to give it the home that it deserved, and in 1987 purchased premises for a museum of shops.
After years of dedicated construction and accurate recreation, the four floors of the museum now contain a grocery shop; a heart-warming Christmas display; a toy room; a war time kitchen… the list goes on. It is not just the exquisite attention to detail in the displays themselves which makes the museum so absorbing, but also the connoisseur-like eye of the collector, who has carefully selected fascinating and aesthetically pleasing objects to fill the cabinets. This is a curatorial skill that can perhaps only be achieved through years of searching, gathering and selecting.
While walking through the ‘streets’ in the museum, a blue bottle caught my eye. This tiny object is the mirror image of a bottle that has lived in my parent’s house for years. Its twin originally belonged to my Great Grandmother and is consequently cherished by my mother. For many years, we have deliberated over what may have originally been contained within – the label having worn away long ago. Some of our opinions were opposed entirely, with ideas ranging from perfume to poison. In this one visit to How We Lived Then, our family dispute was resolved forever. A triangular silver label on the newly discovered bottle read ‘Evening in Paris’, a perfume made by Bourjois. My mother was right!
It is experiences like this that make How We Lived Then such an engaging space to explore. I’m sure I’m not the first visitor who has had such a strong emotional reaction to an object, and I’m very sure that I won’t be the last.