LONDON (Reuters Life!) - When you first arrive at the house on Gellatly Road it appears to be an ordinary Victorian home...until the lady with the wig answers the door.
After that prepare to suspend your disbelief as you enter the alternative reality of the Nunhead and District Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, where the “lower catacombs” (a window into the basement under the floorboards) are too dangerous to enter and everyone has a funny name.
The lady in the wig and the blue suit at the door, a Miss Ulricke Furtwangler, is your guide into an absurd world that tells visitors more about English eccentricity than anything revelatory about the faux exhibits on display.
“The Lower Catacombs, hundreds of feet below, are not open - they are too dangerous,” Furtwangler explains. “But you can visit the Upper Catacombs.”
She offers you a hard hat and opens the door into what would usually be a living room.
The temporary museum in this southeast London suburb boasts a shadowy maze filled with statuary and funeral urns on dusty cardboard shelves and a full-size effigy of the “Nunhead Knight” clutching a sword. Never mind that it’s made from painter’s overalls, a sofa and a baby’s cot.
A silver sarcophagus is a much-prized item that you later learn the museum’s trustees want to sell off to raise cash.
A highlight of the visit is the pet cemetery of fictional Victorian singer Dame Sionagh Durrant, who toured the stages of Europe in the 1820s.
The display informs you that Durrant had many famous lovers including politician Benjamin Disraeli, poet Robert Browning and the museum’s founder Gellatly. She also had a taste for low-life amours - local bricklayers and night-soil workers (Victorian waste removal men).
But the main love of her life was her guinea pigs. The remains of her beloved pets (in reality children’s stuffed toys) are ranged in jars on several shelves.
The museum also comes complete with a shop (the kitchen) selling postcards, t-shirts and tea towels printed with skulls.
Lectures on a variety of topics take place in the “Old Lecture Theater” - a shed at the bottom of the garden.
Subjects include: The Mechanics of Water Pumps in China, The Diseases of Gums and Oral Mucous Membranes in Victorian Times and The Music and Pomp of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
This year, unlike last year, there were real lectures due to popular demand. These took place at 10-minute intervals throughout the day to a packed garden shed.
David White, the museum’s “director” and creator, explains that the idea for the exhibit, which is “mostly fictional,” grew out of his love of real museums.
“I absolutely love museums and the history of collections and their obscure nature.”
He first created the museum last year and it was so popular he did a new version this year, The Catacombs, which took two-and a half months to build and occupy most of the ground floor of the house he shares with his wife and daughters.
White estimated the museum attracted about 500 visitors over the two days that it opened its doors to the public. It is now closed until its next incarnation.
“You can become a friend of the museum,” he said. “And there is a newsletter - The Gellatly Gazette - but it never appears.”
Editing by Paul Casciato