It is known that the first donation of historic material to the British Optical Association occurred in January 1901 at the same time as the BOA Library obtained its first books. It is not clear whether these original gifts of antique spectacles survive in the collection; they cannot be identified as such. Furthermore, we do not know whether the items were displayed in any manner at the Association's temporary headquarters building in Piccadilly (1899-1914). The point is worth making, however, that the Library and Museum collections were regarded as one and the same. Incidentally the 199 Piccadilly address had famous optical links, having provided the premises for the optician Matthew Berge, successor to Jesse Ramsden, at the start of the nineteenth century.
Each division, whether two dimensional or three dimensional, was supposed to embrace not only historical material, but also items which illustrated the state of contemporary knowledge and practice. John Hamer Sutcliffe, the first Secretary of the BOA, stated in The Dioptric Review (January 1914) that he could 'foresee a time not long distant when the BOA will have its own house, including a spectacle and lens museum'. The February issue referred again to Sutcliffe's vision of a 'permanent' museum. The plan was also to include a trade display facility and a depository for new frame designs.
With the move to Cliffords Inn Hall in 1914, the BOA was able to exhibit museum items for the first time in purpose-designed display cases. The move had, in part, been prompted by J.H. Sutcliffe's express desire to establish 'An Optical House Beautiful'. In this phrase he was echoing a concept beloved of the Aesthetic Movement: 'The House Beautiful' had been the subject of a lecture tour by Oscar Wilde in 1882. There can be no doubt that the appearance of the museum as much as the contents within it were of prime concern to Sutcliffe. His choice of eighteenth century cabinets to use as display furniture can, perhaps, be understood in the light of the rooms at the Wallace Collection, which had first opened to the public in 1900. The members of the BOA staff were moved to separate offices to leave the ancient hall free for the sole purpose of housing the Library and Museum displays. There was a separate curator for the museum, Miss Edith Chittell. She apparently offered both an identification service and a valuation service to members who brought in optical antiques of their own. This latter service would be considered ethically unacceptable for a Registered Museum today.
Spectacles, cases and small instruments were displayed in cases on the upper floor with its magnificent 14th century architecture. Large instruments were displayed in the Council Chamber. The outbreak of the First World War, however, meant that an adequate display was only achieved in 1926.
In around 1929 a card index was begun and a project to catalogue the Museum and Library resulted in the famous published work of 1932. In this catalogue a large number of objects was listed and 42 photographic plates illustrated a fair proportion of the collection. The optical instrument collection, however, was not listed completely, nor were most of the prints which were recorded in an accessions register as 'Engravings' though they comprised etchings, lithographs and other types of print too. New acquisitions poured in at a phenomenal rate in the late 1920s and early 1930s, aided partly by the very low prices being demanded for antiques at that period. Purchasing funds were made available. The collection was also augmented through the personal generosity of J.H. Sutcliffe and even the generosity of the Bond Street/Mayfair dealers with whom the Association had built up a close relationship. The Neubert Collection (200 items) was sold to the BOA in 1929, and the O.W. Dunscombe gift (100 items) followed in 1932. Another portion of this collection formed the basis of the optics collection at The Science Museum in South Kensington. With over 1200 items being acquired in the period 1929-1934 the published catalogue went out-of-date almost as soon as it had appeared.
A few of the prints which had been published as pull-out souvenirs from The Dioptric Review were reproduced in the back of the Catalogue. Not all of these were actually taken from original prints; some were reprinted (with permission) from photographic reproductions bought by the BOA from museum and galleries at home and abroad. Many issues of the Review followed in which historical articles were based around unusual museum or library acquisitions.
The museum was not included in subsequent new editions of the Library catalogue. Far from being neglected, however, it was redisplayed magnificently after 1934 when, the Cliffords Inn Hall having been the subject of a compulsory purchase order, the BOA moved to 65 Brook Street. The first oil paintings appear to have been acquired for this building just before the Second World War.
The BOA Museum collection began providing material for off-site exhibitions in the 1930s, including shows in Cardiff, Belfast, Sunderland, Darlington and Southport. Material was exhibited at the famous BOA conferences in London and Oxford. Regular loans were made to the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Most of the print collection was now displayed in heavy wooden frames. 'It was J.H. Sutcliffe's wish that the wall of the Council Chamber should be completely covered with the framed prints of early scientists, historic optical instruments, "Spy" cartoons of famous personages wearing spectacles, and Gillray cartoons'. (Mitchell p.175). It is notable that he felt such historic items were fitting for the main business room within the building, rather than a separate museum. His taste for obscuring the walls was very eighteenth century in tone. Historic detail and much speculative information was annotated on the mounts in Librarian Margaret Mitchell's handwriting.
During the 1939-45 War the displays were crated and sent to Wales. After 1945 they were 'polished up' and redisplayed. In the post-war period, the Museum appears to have been run as an adjunct to the Library, with Margaret Mitchell in sole charge. Sutcliffe's death in the wartime blackout removed perhaps the main impetus to collect more. The accessions register was discontinued in 1956 but there were various additions to the collection every year that followed and the museum diversified its collecting interests. For instance a gift in 1955 from Mr O Raphael formed the basis of a philately collection containing stamps featuring people wearing spectacles.
Go on to the second part of the History of the BOA Museum 1945-2010