Some of the best museums can be the smallest, the one’s devoted to a single topic that few would otherwise think to collect.
Such a museum, and a world leading one, can be found in Greenwich, specialising in collecting the decorative fans we’ve all seen ladies using in period dramas on the telly.
It’s a modest sized museum, housed in a Georgian house, and on my visit, a very quiet museum — although my visit was in the morning, before their rather well regarded Afternoon Tea was being served, so presumably busier in the afternoon.
Hand held fans have been found dating back at least 3,000 years, but the concertina folding variety most of us think of are relatively recent, and the museum opens with the oldest in their display, which dates from the 16th century, of the sort shown in a painting of Queen Elizabeth I.
Fans are also an analogue for industrial development, migrating from early handmade and hand painted designs to much more affordable mass production in the 18th century when paper largely replaced early use of feathers and silks.
The museum can be seen then as a collection of historical artifacts charting the development of the handheld fan, or as an art collection, for realistically it’s the art on the fans that dominates the displays.
What was interesting to see is how important fashions were in fan decoration. It seems that fans were often swapped as often as a ladies dress, and the right fan had to be used at the right time.
They could also be political, with the fall of Napoleon being celebrated, or mourned, depending on which side you were, with fans. Maybe if fans were still popular, ladies would be cooling themselves today with pro-Brexit and pro-Remain designs on their fans.
Fans are still made, and there are some contemporary designs on display as well, as a changing exhibition upstairs, which on my visit was devoted to the popularity of Rossini, and how Opera Houses would produce fans for each show — the fan was the early gift brochure.
It’s a modest £5 to go inside — just don’t take a £20 note, as I ended up walking around lopsided with all the coins the cashier gave back to me.
Overall, worth a visit, if only to say you’ve been, but also a genuinely interesting way to see something you’ve probably never given a second though to, or a first thought to for that matter.
The Fan Museum is open daily except Monday.
Article last updated on March 19th, 2021 at 05:23 pm