Museum History 1901-1980

The history of the BOA Museum from its foundation to its inheritance by the College.

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As with many new professional bodies, the British Optical Association turned its attention at a relatively early stage to obtaining its own premises in London (originally at 17 Shaftesbury Avenue) and starting a library of books for contemporary study and learning. The first book to enter the collection, a 3rd edition of Liebreich's Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy (1885) was donated by John Browning, together with £20 to kick start a library fund, in early 1900. We still have this book and it remains available for members to borrow. A rudimentary 'catalogue' of seven book titles was published in The Dioptric and Ophthalmometric Review in February 1901. 

It is known that the first donation of historic material to the British Optical Association also occurred in January 1901. It is not clear whether these original, unsolicited 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 at 199 Piccadilly (1899-1914) a building since demolished. The point is worth making, however, that the Library and Museum collections were regarded as one and the same. Incidentally the 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 of the Library and Museum collection, 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.

Drawing of Cliffords Inn Hall
Cliffords Inn Hall -
Home to the BOA Museum
from 1914-1934

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 although this movement was considered to be in decline by the turn of the century. Nevertheless 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 for her to assess. This latter service would be considered ethically unacceptable for an Accredited Museum today.

Spectacles, cases and small instruments were displayed in cases on the upper floor at Cliffords Inn Hall, with its magnificent 14th century architecture. Large instruments were displayed in the Council Chamber. It was the intention to open to public visitors in 1915 but we have yet to establish if this actually happened. The outbreak of the First World War, and particularly the BOA's offer of the hall towards whatever means would assist the war effort, meant that an adequate public display was only achieved in 1926, though the museum was certainly accessible by members before that date.

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 that 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 1932 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 in Mayfair. 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.

Photograph of the interior of the BOA Museum when at 65 Brook St

BOA Museum display at 65 Brook Street.
Several of the objects are recognisable
today including the Meissen figure of Count
Bruhl's Tailor riding a bespectacled goat!

In 65 Brook Street, the museum was on the 1st floor (at the front of the building) with the Council Chamber and the Library was on the ground floor. Visitors could walk through glass sliding doors from the Council Chamber straight through to the Museum. Two pre-existing tall wall-cases were brought into use. These were copied to provide four cases in total so as to cover all the walls. Overflow displays were located in the Mews 'cottage' at the back of the building, on its ground and 1st floor. The bulk of the collection was on show and by 1935 the Museum was open until 9pm on two evenings a week. In the Journal of 1934 J.H. Sutcliffe wrote about what was on show and appealed for more donations. In the same decade he made a visit to Dresden along with W. B. Barker to view the collection of Professor von Pflugk 'to receive some instruction and information concerning the development of the BOA Collection'. The Professor, owner of what was then the finest private collection of spectacles in the world, donated many specimens to the BOA including rimless Waldstein monocles, whalebone spectacles and plaster casts of medals. Brook Street also proved to be a convenient location for making more purchases due to its being close to various Mayfair jewellers and galleries. The new premises were also very handy for visiting the Wallace Collection. The tourist taking a walk in that direction today will note that number 65 has become the Embassy of the Republic of Argentina.

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 1982, 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.

As BOA Secretary from 1941-1966 George Giles took a keen personal interest in the museum, often answering queries personally. From the late 1960s considerable research into the collections of spectacle frames was carried out by Mr Paul Fairbanks, a lecturer at the Northampton College (now the City University) in London. The museum now holds his extensive files of notes and clippings on a variety of topics as diverse as safety glasses, plastic manufacturing materials, notions of cosmetic beauty and eskimo goggles. In the 1970s the BOA Museum loaned items to exhibitions in Glasgow and Bradford and for several years there was a showcase of BOA items at the Pilkington Glass Museum in St. Helens.

Due to the amalgamation of the BOA with the other founding bodies of the British College of Ophthalmic Opticians (Optometrists) in 1980, the BOA had already moved buildings to 10 Knaresborough Place, near Earls Court, in 1979. It seems that when negotiations were on-going to disband the BOA and form the British College, there was a proposal to call the collection of antiques the 'Sutcliffe Museum'. This phrase had already been used on occasions, for example when items from the collection were displayed at the International Optical Congress held in London in 1951.

Continue your exploration of the History of the BOA Museum from 1980.

Watch a film issued in 1932 featuring objects from the BOA Museum


The BOA Museum lent items to the Optical Trade Exhibition and Congress co-organised by the Association of Wholesale and Manufacturing Opticians (AWMO) and Optician journal, held at Holborn Hall, London from 29 Sept-1 Oct 1931. At the opening luncheon there was shown a series of costumed tableaux - an 'Historical Spectacles Pageant' - and the National Council for the Preservation of Eyesight (NCPE) then sponsored a film version, filmed in the Pathe studios but utilising the same actors. The voiceover for both the original pageant and film was provided by Mr W. E. Hardy (1900-1982), the de facto editor of the Optician at this time. The film first appeared in cinemas as part of the Pathetone Weekly Series No 96, from Monday 25 January 1932.

Several of the items depicted can still be found in the collection today, but some of the historical information is now known to be inaccurate. For example 'Samuel Pepys' is wearing 19th century D-spectacles and the glasses said to be Newton's were based on principles he described and never claimed as having belonged to the man himself.