London’s Cinema Museum is keeping cinephilia alive. Can it be saved?

The threatened sale of the south London premises of the Cinema Museum would sacrifice a rare, grassroots collection of cinephile memorabilia – and a key community resource – to the forces of property speculation.

Matthew Harle , Jack Wormell

Originally published as The Stuff of Legend in our April 2018 issue

An usher in vintage uniform at London’s Cinema Museum

An usher in vintage uniform at London’s Cinema Museum

The Cinema Museum was founded by collectors and enthusiasts Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries in 1984 as a museum and archive of cinema-going and exhibition, principally during the eras of early cinema and Golden Age Hollywood. The museum’s contents pour out of each doorway, trails of cinema paraphernalia guiding visitors into overstuffed rooms with boxes stacked ten-high to the ceiling.

Alongside the collections are two cinemas: the main hall, which is a popular venue for counter-cinema and silent film events, and a screening room. This is the best and most immediately significant example of the Cinema Museum’s brilliantly paradoxical mission: that a museum dedicated to the most popular mainstream recreation of the last century has also become a home for London’s marginalised and specialist filmmakers, collectors and hobbyists. It is the closest place Britain has ever had to the Cinémathèque in Paris during the latter’s crowning, idiosyncratic years: a vast and utterly haphazard personal collection of film and film memorabilia, with an accessible screening space dedicated to cinema and filmmakers.

Since 1998 the collection has been housed in a Victorian building off a side street in Elephant and Castle, in South London. The structure was originally built as a sprawling workhouse, to accommodate 870 destitute families. It is the same workhouse where Charlie Chaplin was separated from his mother as a child, a detail Grant and Humphries are at pains to highlight to visitors on their tours, not as an exploitative or idle gesture, but because Chaplin’s impoverished childhood has a bearing on the collections, in terms of the often obsessive, compulsive and marginalised life stories that haunt the collections.

The Cinema Museum

The Cinema Museum

Since October 2017 the Cinema Museum’s home has been under threat. The landlord, a specialised mental health trust of the National Health Service, has backed out of a promise to sell the freehold of the building for a fair price to the museum. Instead, the trust’s head has been turned by the exorbitant land value of the site and it has declared that it is now preparing to sell to the highest bidder, informing the museum that their lease expires in March 2018.

It is a gross irony that it is an embattled mental health division of the NHS that delivers this message; and it is depressingly characteristic of a city where public services and public cultural life are made to compete, while private investment is sacrosanct. As a result, it is now very possible that one of central London’s last independent and countercultural spaces will fall victim to an ever-expanding housing bubble; and that the screening rooms, library and storage spaces will soon be home to oblivious wealthy clients occupying overpriced apartments in a block given a tepid, marketable name in tribute: ‘The Old Workhouse’ – brimming with cultural capital, but devoid of actual culture.

The origins of the collection stand in direct opposition to the values of the economic world in which the museum has been trying to survive, not least because Grant and Humphries’s lives have been informed by political activism (both appear in the 1981 subversive pastiche police training tape Watch Out There’s a Queer About). The collections are consciously democratic and inclusive, prizing the obscure and unconventional – their presence around the building provides a reminder of the museum’s role as a sanctuary, bound together by the obsessional, intimate working relationships that the founders and their volunteers and network of comrade cinephiles have created. The museum often offers refuge to volunteers and attendees who would otherwise rely further on the very NHS trust that is likely to evict them.

Inside the Cinema Museum

Inside the Cinema Museum

Like so many archives, the Cinema Museum arose from a personal collection, stemming from Grant’s insatiable desire to preserve the world of film that consumed him as a child. He became an apprentice projectionist at the Aberdeen Picture Palaces at the age of 15, and in the 1960s moved to London, working at the National Film Theatre and the Brixton Ritzy. On a trip back to Aberdeen in the 1970s, he found the Picture Palaces closing down, and all the equipment, signage and paraphernalia headed for the dump. Aghast, Ronald redirected truckloads of objects to a warehouse, inadvertently founding the collection.

Fast-forward almost half a century, and a natural symmetry to this story can be found in the museum’s events schedule. During the Cinema Museum’s tenure in Chaplin’s workhouse, it has become the home for off-kilter archive film culture. There is an event every night: it hosts Kennington Bioscope, a regular silent film screening; memorabilia fairs and bookstalls; the much-loved Home Movie Day; as well being the only venue where you can enjoy an evening with the actor Murray Melvin, or witness film historian Kevin Brownlow being grilled on aspect ratio by a museum regular.

At the heart of this world are, again, the museum’s collections: a near-endless archive that unites people and their compulsions. Pick out a random item hung on the wall, or sitting in a corner of a corridor, and Grant can tell you where it comes from and why it is probably more precious than you assume (you’re sitting on a very rare seat fitting from the Hove Gaumont), or why that dust sheet can’t be moved (it covers an unidentifiable object from the Crown Film Unit), or why this little cardboard box is actually very valuable (it has to do with Joan Crawford, and there was a film about it). He can show you the latest acquisitions, the back issues of Variety, relics from the earliest days of cinemagoing – and, if you are lucky, the two handmade cabinets, tucked away at the back of the library, that contain the Vic Kinson Stars Archive.

Index cards from the Vic Kinson Stars Archive, held at the Cinema Museum

Index cards from the Vic Kinson Stars Archive, held at the Cinema Museum

If the Cinema Museum is evicted and its collections dispersed, we will think of the Vic Kinson Stars Archive before anything else. This is a cross between a film diary and an immense paper IMDb. Over the course of his adult life, Vic, a bookkeeper for a grain company in Derbyshire, compiled a jaw-dropping collection of 36,000 bespoke index cards, each bearing an eccentric list of data about actors – name, date of birth, height, eye colour, marriages, hobbies and more. On the back of each card is a list of films the actor has starred in, and the date and cinema in which Vic saw the film, from his first visit to the Measham Empire in 1940 until his final card entry in 2012. An expansive, indexical autobiography emerges from the collection: Vic’s lifelong project – kept private until his grandchildren donated it to the museum – as much an attempt to reach out and write about his life as it was a resource of information about the hobbies of Cyd Charisse or marriages of Alan Ladd.

There are countless other Vic Kinsons in the museum, both in its collections and in person, hovering around the hallways. The legacies of these cinephiles materialise in many forms: scrapbooks, trays of ushers’ badges, newspaper clippings, cinema-going diaries, distribution bulletins. But, unlike vintage projectors or movie posters, these do not have obvious historic or monetary value. They are created by ordinary people consumed by screens – the traces of their everyday life woven into the collections. “These are not special people,” notes Humphries as we riffle through their cinephile collections – but this is precisely what drives the Cinema Museum to collect them.

The Vic Kinson Collection

These collections and the social world of the museum remind us that cinephilia is still very much alive in its traditional material sense, and that collecting is a vital instinct which must be protected, especially when its methodology deviates from, or stands in opposition to, those of major state-funded museums and archives. But the fate of the museum should also shape broader conversations about the dwindling countercultural spaces and centres of exhibition in London. It is precisely spaces like this and the unassuming labours of its founders that trace a clear line from golden-age cinema exhibition to modern screening collectives, many of whom have inherited the fetishism of celluloid that Grant and Humphries have protected for so long.

The closure of the museum would not only be catastrophic for the collection, for London’s independent film culture, for the organisers of genre, cult or experimental film nights, and for filmmakers or collectors; it would be a loss of the expression of the lived experience of film-going – a structure of feeling that cannot be recreated in boutique cinemas or pigeonholed in academic categories. That is why collections like Vic Kinson’s provide the most poignant contrast between the ambitions of the museum and the economic landscape in which they and the NHS are being forced to compete – a landscape where finances are allowed to be speculative, yet the ineffable traces of the eccentric, the unconventional and the compulsive that evoke the spirit of the museum must suddenly reveal their value.

  • To sign the petition to save the Cinema Museum, visit change.org.

  • Sight & Sound: the April 2018 issue

    Sight & Sound: the April 2018 issue

    Wes Anderson on Isle of Dogs, Warwick Thornton on Sweet Country, Lynne Ramsay on You Were Never Really Here, Ruben Östlund on The Square and...

More from this issue

Find out more

Access the digital edition

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.