Don’t tell anyone, but museums bore me.
Maybe it’s all in the presentation. My Rick Steves-inspired tour of the British Museum will be posted soon, and it did have some fascinating moments. But artifacts set in polished glass cases, thousands of miles from where they originated don’t do it for me.
I like context. That’s why I love house museums. Add an element out of classic literature and I’m there.
So its not surprising the Dickens House Museum has been one of my favorite, if unexpected, experiences on this trip. For someone who isn’t looking for it, the museum is easy to miss. It’s one of a long line of undistinguished row houses on Doughty St., with only a sidewalk sign and small plaque to indicate its existence.
You enter the house into a long hallway that ends in the ticket counter/gift shop. The friendly staff takes your money and offers you the opportunity to view the orientation video on loop in the basement of the four story structure. Then you’re on your own.
The first room is a small dining room which has an oblong shape, which is quite interesting when you study it closely. Even the doors are rounded to fit flush when closed. Here, and throughout the house are busts of Dickens, when he was young, old and in-between. It makes you realize what a celebrity he was throughout his career.
Charles Dickens was the novelist who raised social commentating, as well as the “author reading,” to an art form. The Dickens House museum is his only surviving London home and it’s where he published and completed some of his most famous works, including The Pickwick Papers (the first book I ever read by him), Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
Upstairs is the “reading room,” commemorating his pioneering efforts to commercialize on his success through paid public readings.
Along the way are scattered paintings, rare books, manuscripts, original furniture. Even his toilet chair. My favorite part had to be his desk materials, neatly organized as he kept them: pens, inkwells and even a porcelain monkey he kept around for inspiration. Seems these organizational quirks are common to the writer’s pyche, no matter the century.
And just beyond it is an apparent bedroom converted for the exhibit “Ignorance and Want: the social conscience of Charles Dickens.” The exhibit explores the people and events behind the heroes and villans of Dickens’ writings. I found the story behind Nicholas Nickleby particularly interesting.
To get more of the history, check out the online tour, which details the house’s contents room-by-room.