William Morris was a man of many interests and talents. He was born in 1834 in Walthamstow to wealthy parents and he became (among other things) a successful entrepreneur. He was largely known for his socialist political beliefs and he was a passionate activist in supporting them. However his critics believe that his choices were rather contradictory as he dreamt of a society of equality but was accused to have lived the life of a capitalist. As often is the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and Morris’ achievements are worth looking into in order to determine this.
The first time I visited this museum was a few years back, before it was renovated. I do not remember perfectly the details of that visit, only the general feeling I had, that the house was really old and the display of the exhibits was rather basic. Later on, specifically a couple of years back, the museum closed down, surprisingly only for one year and it re-opened last august, looking brand new. As was mentioned in the previous post about Strawberry Hill house, the whole subject of restoration is quite controversial.
Many will argue that to restore a building to its original state is almost a violation because new materials and construction methods make the exact reproduction virtually impossible. Hence depending on the quality of the renovation, a building may end up a travesty of its original version. On the other hand to arbitrary choose a specific moment of its deterioration process and “freeze” it, that is, stop the decline of the building and not let it age any more, can be equally random. A rather radical opinion I heard recently was that the best thing would be to leave historical buildings to deteriorate to the point they collapsed, which I am not certain I would agree to either.
My first impression of the Morris Museum this time around, was that the alterations it underwent were tasteful however it does not resemble a house any more. This is without a doubt a museum that is meant to inform the public of who William Morris was. Thus I believe it should be judged as such because more than anything else it is an “envelope” or a “shell” that contains information.
Going through the various galleries, visitors learn that Morris studied architecture but never practised it. Instead he designed furniture and fabric prints, he weaved carpets and was fascinated by embroidery. Morris was undoubtedly a pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement which pronounced the importance of simplicity and functionality and paved the way for the aesthetics of Modernism. Morris was also a painter and he designed and produced stained glass. He was additionally a publisher (The Kelmscott Press) who loved typography and created the layout for a number of beautiful books.
He was one of the first environmentalists at a time when environmental destruction was not as dramatic as nowadays. He was also a very prolific writer who prefered the fantasy genre. Apparently Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and Lewis’ “Narnia” were inspired partly from Morris’ books like “News from Nowhere”. He was also a poet but most importantly he was a political activist. He participated in many demonstrations and published the Commonweal, the official newspaper of the Socialist League at his own expense for many years.
There is no doubt that there are a few contradictions around Morris’ background and choices. To begin with, his privileged family gave him the opportunity to study at a time when it was not accessible to most. He had many connections that obviously contributed to the success of his enterprises. Still he truly believed that design should not only be available to the upper classes and he attempted manufacturing affordable design products. Additionally, his novels and poems described utopian equal societies and regardless of the fact that he was accused of being a dreamer he did try with his political struggles and publications to bring this utopian society closer. Naturally his businesses were successful because of his wealthy clients that could afford his expensive handmade products and there is a contradiction already in that fact. However to his defence, most socialist (even anarchist) pioneers and thinkers came from upper class families and also socialism, capitalism etc were quite different from how we perceive them today. It is always helpful to attempt to keep a neutral position and acknowledge both positive and negative facts that are associated with historical figures and place them in their era’s context. In other words William Morris might not have been perfect but I do not think he was a hypocrite either.
Going back to the exhibition, the information that it presents is easy to absorb and the layout of the rooms is also rather good. Many of Morris’ objects, furniture, printing materials, original prints and drawings are on display and it is fascinating to be able to see them from up close. There are also many interactive exhibits for children to play with like stained glass puzzles, carpet weaving toys, costumes etc which I found educational and intriguing. I cannot say the same about the electronic-interactive games like the one where the visitor supposedly starts a business and going through a multiple-choice process finds out in the end if he managed to make a profit or not. That was a gadget which emphasised capitalism more than it should, at least for my taste.
Regardless of a few objections on the renovation of the museum, I believe that the narrative of William Morris’ life through the exhibits is a relatively well rounded one that does not neglect any of his interests, passions and achievements. One final note concerns the new cafe that I did not particularly like. Too many glass surfaces made it annoyingly loud because sound was reflected and multiplied. I did not like it much from the outside either as it looked “indecisive” of whether it wanted to make an architectural statement or attempted to relate to the existing building by subtly reflecting its aesthetic. In my opinion it is rather unsuccessful in both.
Regardless of minor criticisms, I have to say that I enjoyed my visit there and that I wholeheartedly recommend it because its positive aspects outnumber the negative ones. William Morris’ life was very productive and also extremely influential. His contribution to design affected substantially the history of the arts, architecture included of course, and there is much to learn from studying his creations.
William Morris Gallery official website here
Read more about Morris here