Optical Illusions? Ghosts Spotted At Optical Museum In London

By Richard Moss | 16 March 2006
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a photograph of a gallery with display cases

The Sutcliffe Gallery Room. A decorator had a ghostly encounter here with a man wearing a tricorn hat. © The College of Optometrists

Staff at one of London’s smaller museums, the British Optical Association Museum in Craven Street, are on the look out for psychic investigators after a series of ghostly encounters.

The apparitions appeared in a museum gallery and curator’s office during the week of Monday March 13 2006, whilst staff and decorators were involved in a revamp and reorganisation of the museum's displays.

“One of the decorators saw a crouching figure of an old man on Monday,” said museum curator Neil Handley. “Yesterday (Wednesday) he saw another figure of a middle aged man. This figure spoke to him and said: ‘Where’s Mary? I can’t find Mary.’

"He has clearly described the figure as wearing a dark blue frock coat and a tricorn hat with white tassles, so we're obviously talking about quite an old one!"

Neil is now going to look at the records of the building to see if he can unearth any clues as to the identity of the ghost.

“These sightings have only just happened, so we haven’t really had time to investigate them,” he said, “but we’re going to have a look to see if we can find a reference to anyone called Mary in the records.”

He is also keen to find out if there are any scientific groups who might be interested in investigating the ghostly sightings.

a satirical print showing three men wearing hats and spectacles

The museum has many prints of men wearing a tricorn hats, could one of them hold the key to the identity of 'George'? © The College of Optometrists

“If there are serious groups of scientific investigators out there who deal with this kind of thing, they are welcome to come here and set up their equipment to see if they can sense anything,” said Neil. “Perhaps they can detect a drop in atmospheric pressure or something?"

"To be honest I don’t really know much about these things, I’m a scientist and a sceptic," he added, "so I’m really interested in looking into this from a scientific point of view.”

This week's sightings are the first time a psychic phenomenon has been reported in the museum, although the building, which dates to the 1730s and has been home to the College of Optometrists since 1997, gave off a mysterious odour when the museum opened in the basement during 2003.

“There were some rather strange odour problems a few years ago that can best be described as a kind of rotting stench,” recalled Neil.

Two theories at the time put the smell down to the building’s proximity to the Thames embankment and the possibility of old oyster beds deep down in the building’s foundations. The building was also used for a number of years after WWII as a refuge for stray cats but the true cause of the smell remained a mystery and was eventually masked by sealing the floors.

It is the latest sightings that have sparked the interest of museum staff. The decorator, whose grandmother was a medium, has apparently inherited some of her gifts and he also reported that he sensed the second ghost’s name was George.

a porcelain figure of a man riding on the back of a goat

Is the goat's name Mary? A satirical piece of Meissen-ware held in the museum's collection. © The College of Optometrists

“If he had said it just once,” continued Neil, “I would have thought he was just pulling my leg, but the fact that he said it in all seriousness twice and repeated the story to several members of staff makes me want to look into further.”

"To be honest, I often work alone here late at night,"said Neil, whose office is one of the ghostly locations, "but I've never encountered or sensed anything. Whether the redecoration has created a disturbance or something I just don’t know.”

Founded by JH Sutcliffe of the British Optical Association in 1901, the British Optical Museum, or MusEYEum as it is known, houses a remarkable collection of nearly ten thousand items relating to the history of ophthalmic optics (optometry), the human eye and visual aids, as well as the representation of these subjects in art.

Ghost-hunting members of the public will have to wait before they go in search of apparitions at the museum. Currently closed for redecoration and redevelopment, staff hope to reopen with a fresh, brighter feel in late March - and perhaps with reinvigorated spirits!

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