MGM 2005: The Geffrye Museum Tells A Tudor Chair's Tale

By Helen Barrett | 10 May 2005
Shows a photo of a high-backed, throne-like Elizabethan chair.

Elizabethan chair, c.1620. The Geffrye Museum.

Helen Barrett and Jude went along to a free storytelling event at the Geffrye Museum, pausing to check out Sit?, on show until August 29 2005, while they were there.

Six-year-old Jude is outside the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch. I read him the brochure: “You’ll listen to the story of a Tudor chair as it travels back in time.” He looks doubtful.

Immediately there’s a freak hailstorm. “Can we go to the Imperial War Museum and see the tanks?” pleads a sodden Jude, as we dash inside.

It’s Museums and Galleries Month, and I’m aiming to make the most of free events for children in London. A new story, A Chair’s Tale, has been written for the Geffrye Museum to tie in with this year’s theme, objects of desire. There’s also a separate exhibition entitled SIT?, focusing on contemporary seating with a playful approach to tradition and materials.

I’m hoping that, by the end of the day, Jude will appreciate chair design as much as armoured vehicles.

Shows a photograph of a chair made out of different coloured woods with two backs to appear as if it is really two chairs.

Me and Auntie Nan, 1954, by Claire Matthews. Part of the Sit? exhibition of contemporary seating at the Geffrye Museum.

We meet the welcoming and enthusiastic June Peters, a freelance storyteller and former teacher. “I’ll be matching the story to the museum’s display,” says June. “How does a chair end up in a museum? Older pieces have been on a journey before they became prized. I want children to understand how objects travel though time.”

Jude sits down by a stack of picture boards and props. “Will it be a spooky story?” he asks hopefully. Using hats for role-play, and her considerable acting skills, June takes Jude back in time to 1620, when a wealthy Tudor family ordered an ornate handmade chair.

Shows a photo of a young boy sitting on the floor, wearing a mobcap, next to a woman.

The challenge is on... can our storyteller spark Jude's interest in chairs? © Helen Barrett.

Next, they’re in 1750 where the chair is demoted to a nanny’s bedroom – June even persuades Jude to don a mobcap.

He’s genuinely mortified when a thoughtless Victorian family dump the unhappy chair in their attic, but there’s relief all round when it’s rescued for the Geffrye Museum in the 20th century. June adds some spooky footsteps and creaking doors, which I suspect is an exclusive. He’s captivated.

Shows a photograph of a chair made out of a long, fluffy-haired material.

Rupert by Alma Home. Part of the Sit? exhibition of contemporary seating at the Geffrye Museum.

Then comes the real time travel; Jude and June wander through the Geffrye’s collection of domestic interiors to find the Tudor chair. “There!” says Jude, with excitement. He’s even able to sit on a replica. “How does it feel?” we ask. “Too hard, but it feels grand.”

I ask Education Officer Alison Lightbown how the Geffrye Museum chose this event for Museums and Galleries month. “We run storytelling sessions for 12,000 schoolchildren every year in reception, and key stages 1 and 2,” she explains. “June will develop A Chair’s Tale into our teaching sessions for primary schools next year, and train staff to continue to tell it as a lasting legacy.”

Shows a photograph of a young boy standing beside a museum display of some chairs. One in particular is called the Belly Button chair and appears to be moulded plastic with a dip for a seat.

Jude contemplates the Belly Button chair. © Helen Barrett.

We say goodbye to June, then head downstairs to check out SIT? We arrange our own seating with some ingenious interlocking chairs for children, which Jude loves. Then he climbs into an enormous swinging donut called the Love Pod, designed as “an intimate space where people can meet”. “It feels really floaty,” he says. But his favourite is the Belly Button chair, a waxy green slab that looks exactly like, well, a belly button.

We leave the Geffrye Museum just as the sun comes out. I ask Jude for his verdict. “Cool! I liked the story best,” he says.

Shows the Museums and Galleries Month logo.

Helen Barrett is participating in the 24 Hour Museum/ MGM Arts Writing Prize 2005.

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