Geffrye Museum Brings The West Indian Front Room To Life

By Shruti Ganapathy | 25 October 2005
Shows a photo of an old-fashioned living room with pink wallpaper and a sofa with a lace cover

The front room was an important part of creating a respectable home in a new country. Photo Shruti Ganapathy

A depressed Caribbean economy at the end of World War II prompted a lot of people to journey to Britain in the hope of getting financial rewards. Most came with the intention of going back home within five years after having made a small fortune.

They looked at Britain as their ‘mother country’, a sense of belonging that was encouraged back home. However, on their arrival they were rather disappointed with the way they were treated.

Hackney’s Geffrye Museum is depicting the West Indian Front Room as part of their Black History Month celebrations. This exhibition runs until February 19 2006 and shows how a simple thing as a front room could matter so much to a community.

Shows a photo of a young woman sitting on the floor of a living room with a brown patterned carpet

Front rooms provided a safe space to socialise at a time when black people were often not allowed to enter clubs or pubs. Photo courtesy Geffrye Museum

One of the major problems most Caribbean faced was finding accommodation. Signs saying ‘no coloureds’ were not unusual and this often meant the only option was to share single rooms with friends or family. A shared cooker on the landing and an outside toilet were typical.

Housing difficulties led to the formation of the ‘pardner hand’ or partner system where groups of people pooled resources to put together sufficient sums of deposit that would enable each of them to buy a house.

The purchase of a flat or house brought the opportunity to make a front room. It was believed to be an important part of creating a respectable home and gaining stability within a new country.

Michael McMillan, guest curator at the Geffrye Museum, recalled: “I grew up learning that 'cleanliness was next to godliness' and no matter how poor we were, if the front room looked good, then we were decent people.”

Shows a photo of an old-fashioned living room with pink wallpaper and a television and radio in a wooden cabinet

The museum's model front room transports you back in time. Photo Shruti Ganapathy

The model front room on display is extravagantly decorated with plush maroon and red carpet and a rich brown and gold striped curtain. It is filled with a radiogram, a copy of Da Vinci's Last Supper, a couple of paintings depicting beautiful countryside, proudly framed family pictures, a comfortable sofa, a drinks cabinet, a telephone and pictures of black political and social icons.

Stepping into the room made me feel that I was entering the living room of a rather wealthy person, although it must be remembered that most at that time were workers often doing unskilled jobs with a hand-to-mouth existence.

It was interesting to know that showing the best side of the curtain was considered bad taste because facing outward meant ‘dressing up the street’ or ‘just for show’, as if to cover up what the home didn't have.

Shows a black and white photo of a family stood up together in a living room

Front rooms were markers of the achievements and resilience achieved by the community in a hostile environment. Photo courtesy Geffrye Museum

The attention to detail transports you to a different world, and there are telephones outside the display area that you can pick up to hear experiences of people in their own front rooms - little anecdotes told with great enthusiasm that make you temporarily feel part of the whole setting.

Front rooms provided a safe space to socialise with peers at a time when black people were often not allowed to enter clubs or pubs. They were also a marker of the achievements and resilience achieved by the community in a hostile environment.

This exhibition is an opportunity for those that remember to reminisce, and for the people like me who had never known what it was like to be there, is an opportunity to learn the significance of something seemingly trivial.

One of the entries in the comment book read: “Felt like being at Mum’s.”

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