29 November 2022

Museum working towards a grand reopening

As we prepare for the reopening of the College’s Optical Museum, Curator Neil Handley tells us what has been happening behind the scenes.

A sudden closure

We closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic. The closure was sudden, abrupt and longer-lasting than any contingency plan might have envisaged. Visitor bookings were cancelled, as was a major Anglo-American conference of ophthalmic antique collectors and almost all the intended programme of events to mark the 40th anniversary of the College in its present guise. For museums in the UK, and across the world, it was a difficult time, operationally, financially and emotionally. Patrons, supporters and regular donors were lost to a terrible disease. Some museums have closed permanently, some made experienced and knowledgeable staff redundant, while others came through it all but now operate in radically different ways. Advance booking, timed-ticketing and daily restrictions on numbers are now far more common.

Adapting to new ways

It wasn’t all bad news, however. Museums adapted, went increasingly online, hosted lectures, talks and tours over Zoom or, as the pandemic progressed, introduced hybrid events. Behind-the-scenes it turned out to be an unprecedented opportunity to tackle documentation backlogs, inspect the condition of our optical collection, catch up on correspondence and achieve all those things on the to-do list without the distraction (however enjoyable!) of day-to-day visitors and researchers crossing the threshold.

We missed those people, however. A museum without people is just a collection of objects. When people come and interact with staff and the displays we transform into a factory of memories, a theatre of stories and a forum for two-way research. As we moved into 2021 we had begun a programme of embellishments to the displays but these were halted when the Board of Trustees agreed a far more radical full-building refurbishment. As these got underway it became clear that the museum, as one of the most public-facing aspects of the College, should be modernised similarly. The look is now cleaner and more neutral, even clinical, but an excellent backdrop for bright and well-lit displays.

Letting the collection speak for itself

The final phase is now beginning with the fit-out of the two museum galleries – the Sutcliffe Room and the Giles Room. Our aim is that the means of display will no longer dominate. The objects contained within will instead be allowed to speak more readily for themselves. Mixing this array of three-dimensional objects with real and reproduction images from our own archives, as well as film footage and associated web content, we intend the new museum to carry on where the old one left off, but surpass it. The Museum will be the go-to place to learn about the history of optometry, as an organised and learned scientific profession and as a medical-related service to the public. The history of the eye examination and the vision aids available at different times in our past will be covered thoroughly and thematically, with some old favourites on show as well as items brought up from the reserve store, some of which haven’t been seen in decades. That’s not to mention the new acquisitions we’ve made in the meantime. We’ll be sharing some of our celebrity eyewear but also telling stories of ordinary men, women and children and their experience of getting to grips with glasses, contact lenses, low vision aids or even artificial eyes. In our new studio adjacent to the Giles Room we will be able to record new podcasts and interviews, or work to improve our stock of photographic images. In the workshop area we will be able to clean and conserve antique pieces to the standard they deserve. The newly renovated cellars will provide much-needed extra capacity of storage space to allow us to continue active collecting in the fields of eye care and eyewear.

Reaching a wider audience

When it was founded in 1901, the British Optical Association Museum and Library was envisaged as a repository of specialist knowledge and a resource for ophthalmic opticians, to learn about the best available products and to view them in their proper historical context. In 2023, after three years of closed doors, we’ll be back as a sight to behold, the ultimate tourist attraction for sightseers, the museum where the exhibits look at you and all the other beloved clichés. I hope it will have retained much of the special character, even quirkiness, that so endeared it to past audiences but, equally, I hope fervently that we will have created a series of spaces that allow the College to serve a wider range of audiences just as satisfyingly. The terms of our Royal Charter, issued by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 1995, state that the College will manage ‘museums’… in the plural! It’s been hard but rewarding work just striving to bring you this one. 

We hope you will come and see us in 2023.

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Related further reading

The historian and curator talks about his 25-year career at the College.