Museum History 1980-2020

The continuing history of the BOA Museum in the custodianship of the College.

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Knaresborough Place

For almost eleven years following the move of the BOA to the premises of the soon-to-be-formed British College of Ophthalmic Opticians, the collection was largely undisplayed with the exception of the paintings. In 1984, at a meeting of the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors' Club (OAICC), Tom Collingridge, Secretary of the College, spoke of the desire for a new printed catalogue and labelling of the exhibits. He suggested that sponsorship to the tune of £10,000 might help but nothing came of this suggestion. Perhaps it was already becoming clear that an old-fashioned printed catalogue could turn into an expensive white elephant. In the meantime, useful work on the collection of prints was being carried out during the mid 1980s by students from the Camberwell School of Art. In 1988, the College published a set of sixteen colour postcards of choice items from the museum. The high demand for these was very satisfying.

In the spring of 1990 an 'Honorary Curator', Mr. Hugh Orr, was appointed. Mr Orr was a College Fellow from Beckenham, a long-standing member of the OAICC and an amateur historian of spectacle frames. Single-handedly he remounted a display with extensive captions. An official re-opening ceremony with forty guests was held on September 4th to mark the occasion. Several of the large instruments were exhibited having been repaired and cleaned by Mr Richard Keeler, managing director of Keeler Instruments in Windsor.

Harley Street

A subsidiary display, including both prints and objects, was prepared by Hugh Orr in 1993, to go in display cases built to his own specification, for the General Optical Council's building at 41 Harley Street. In the early 2000s some items were stolen from here. It turned out that they had been exhibited in the room where persons attending for disciplinary hearings were asked to wait, and that the key had been left in the lock! This display was revamped (and made more secure) in January 2002 but eventually removed in 2003 and the cases now form part of the display furniture in the current Museum's Sutcliffe Room.

Mr Orr continued to work at the College in a voluntary capacity, producing a Catalogue of the Current Display and beginning a hand-written listing of the collection. The general public could visit the museum for a guided tour provided by Mr. Orr on any week day by appointment between the hours of 10am and 4pm. Hugh Orr, by now in his nineties, retired in 1996. (The College mourned his passing, aged 97, in 2002 - only two and a half years short of achieving his ambition to become a genuine 'antique'). His Honorary Assistant Curator, the highly respected Arthur Bennett, had died in 1994 having almost completed a total reorganisation of the ophthalmic lens collection.

During the early 1990s steps were initiated to conserve and restore the collection of oil paintings. The work was done by Mrs Jennifer Ridd over several years, being completed in the new building in 1999. The restoration work won lavish praise from Mr. Nicholas Penny, at that time Deputy Director of the National Gallery, who visited the College to give expert opinions on the various attributed artists. At this time a detailed catalogue of the paintings was also prepared, which we have updated carefully every year since.

Craven Street

The College of Optometrists moved in 1997 to premises occupying numbers 41-42 Craven Street, a Georgian townhouse (No. 41, c.1730) with a modern extension (No. 42, c.1988) just a few doors down from the former London residence of Benjamin Franklin, first adopter, amongst other things, of the split bifocal lens. Many of the opticians' businesses apparent in the collection (marked on spectacle cases for example) were located on Fleet Street and The Strand so, in a sense, the College has returned to a more appropriate part of London. It might also be noted that 41 Craven Street once also housed a dealership importing telescopes, kaleidscopes and other optical toys...but that was back in the 1820s!

The Museum's recent history began with the Documentation Project of 1998-9, one consequence of which was the compilation of the first full inventory of the collection since 1932. In October 1999, Neil Handley, the project assistant since the summer of 1998, was appointed as the museum's first ever professional curator.

Temporary display at Gosforth 2002
A temporary museum display shown at the College AGM in Gosforth, 2002

Throughout the College's time at Craven Street individual objects have been made available, on application, for specialist researchers to study. In April 2001 the Council of the College declared its intention to redisplay the museum and open a public exhibition aimed at both the subject specialist and the general visitor. This decision was welcomed by the many groups and individuals who already contact the museum each year despite minimal publicity. As part of its thirtieth anniversary issue (April 2002) World of Interiors magazine listed the BOA Museum as one of the thirty 'very best' specialist subject collections in the world, and declared that the forthcoming redisplay was 'worth keeping an eye out for!'

For various operational reasons a full refurbishment is still awaited but a small display was opened in November 2003 - the first regular, permanent display of BOA material available to the general public for over six years.

On 28th November 2003 the museum was registered as museum number 2069 in the museums national registration scheme, administered by Re:source, the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries. Registration is the benchmark of professional standards in museums and the award recognised five years of hard work by a small but dedicated team. It was a good start to the new Millennium!

The displays were revised further during 2006-7 with the opening of the Giles Room (previously the Museum Study Room) and in January 2008 when a large new display case was installed on the first floor. The 'Wall of Glass' was begun in the downstairs rooms in 2009 when the Contact Lens Collection case was created in a former window well. Two more window spaces were so-treated in 2011 and the final two (to accommodate the Hansell Eyebath Collection and the revamped display on the history of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers) were commissioned in late 2012. The centre of the Giles Room was transformed in late 2013 by the installation of the display cases accompanying the Norman Bier Collection. Various internal signs and caption holders were upgraded at the same time. In April 2014 we unveiled a new 'permanent' display of the spectacles of the late Queen Mother. New displays for 2020 include oriental spectacles and cases and an improved and expanded section on Harry Potter! At the same time the centre of the Sutcliffe Room was improved with the installation of wooden panelling, on which could be mounted a computerised test chart, Pulsair tonometer and other items for a neater display.

The museum began a programme of temporary exhibitions in the early 2000s. These have included topics as diverse as eye-make up, nutrition and sight, blind people, monocles, colour vision, Victorian photographs of people wearing spectacles, the St Dunstan's centre for blinded ex-servicemen and the work of three very different artists-in-residence.

In June 2006 the museum catalogue was placed online and from February 2007 the catalogue entries were accompanied by digital images of most objects. In February 2010, at the first time of asking, the museum was awarded 'Full Accreditation' status in the MLA's successor scheme to museum registration. (In 2012 the MLA was dissolved and the Accreditation Scheme was handed over to the Arts Council for England). After seven months work, the museum submitted its formal 'return' with a view to re-accreditation in February 2014. We had to repeat this laborious process all over again in 2019 and were notified of our success in March 2020.

In a major publicity boost for the museum many of its exhibits featured in a high-quality hardback book published by Merrell in September 2011. Cult Eyewear was written by the museum's curator, Neil Handley, over a two year period and quickly established itself as the seminal work on the subject. It could claim justly to be the first major study of the historical development of so-called 'styled spectacles' which led on to branded fashion eyewear. Three other books on the subject appeared from other publishers within a year!

Another landmark was reached in September 2014 when the museum was awarded its first ever grant of funding from an external body. The Arts Council for England part-funded the acquisition of two rare optical catalogues from the Georgian period.

Marking our centenary...again and again

Although the museum was officially founded, and its collection begun, in 1901, the year 2015 marked the centenary, we believe, of its first proper display open to the public. In any case, we can certainly claim to be in our second century of operation. Who knows, we might mark our centenary for a third time in 2026, one hundred years after the museum's founders first declared satisfation with what was on view to visitors?

The Year of the Virus

We began the year 2020 by asking potential visitors 'Why not visit us in 2020 - The Year of Vision?' This also coincided with the 40th Anniverary of the establishment of the College, concerning which a series of events and initiatives were planned to start from 1 March. Even as those words were being published online the first reports were emerging from Wuhan, China of the Coronavirus (COVID-19). By early March it became apparent that, in common with many other parts of the world, the UK was likely to suffer from a serious outbreak. It proved necessary to cancel the historical conference planned for late April which was to have been held jointly under the auspices of the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors' Club and the Ocular Heritage Society of America, under the umbrella title of 2020 Antique Vision. The situation continued to escalate rapidly. By 18 March the museum had been closed to visitors and the following week, in a state of national lockdown (declared 23 March) the entire College building was closed, all staff working from home until September.

A mini refurbishment of the museum display rooms commenced December 2020.

Accounts of the museum's history from which most of this article was drawn, are to be found in an article by J. H. Sutcliffe in the 1932 Catalogue and in the History of the British Optical Association 1895-1978, by Margaret Mitchell. Some of this information is repeated, more briefly, together with some updated information, in the The College of Optometrists: A History 1980-1998, by Philip Cole and Martin Lynch (published 1999). A continuation volume of this latter work, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015 by David Cartwright and Neil Handley was published in 2015 and the curator is currently conducting further doctoral-level research into the history of the museum and other museums of the so-called 'new' medical professions in the UK during the 20th century.