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Monday, 25 January 2016

Our January Hipster Museum: the MusEYEum

It's been a few years now we've been doing this, and you've probably got the sense that we might sometimes play favourites with our city's museums. Alright, you've caught us, we just love medical museums! I mean - who doesn't right? And while we spend lots of time at the Wellcome or the Hunterian, London is chock full of small medical museums yet to be discovered! For this month's hipster museum, we take you into the history of spectacles at the British Optometry Association's museum, the MusEYEum. When you see the badass glasses in store for you, we know the hipster crowd will come in droves.

Not too long ago we went on an expedition to the Benjamin Franklin House museum, which we never even realised was tucked away on a cute little 18th century street just next to Charing Cross station. Without even knowing it we walked straight past the BOA museum, which is housed inside the Royal College of Optometrists. If you didn't know, London is full of the medical colleges and most of them keep a little museum or displays of their specialty's history. Smaller, more focused versions of what you might find at the Royal College of Physicians or Surgeons. Most, like the BOA museum, require you to make an appointment to visit- but don't let that put you off!

Much like the cabinet of curiosities of yore, you need a guide to get you into the MusEUum - in this case their dedicated Curator Neil Handley. While booking an appointment might be a bit of a hassle, its definitely worth it for every visitor to get to speak directly to the collection's keeper, and get a brief tour to boot! The museum itself is surprisingly large for a specialist medical collection, stretching over two good sized rooms absolutely packed with cases, wall displays, videos, drawers and interactives. While like most collections the majority of objects are in storage, the MusEYEum certainly has a go at getting out as much as is possible.

So what is the history of optometry then? Basically, the long history of man attempting to correct or enhance his eyesight. The Chinese culture invented spectacles centuries ago, with the first recorded European discovery of eye glasses being Marco Polo's journey to the east. By the 18th century, spectacles have really hit their stride. However - unlike the quirky hipsters of today, glasses weren't a go to fashion accessory. In fact to wear them meant admitting something was wrong with you; spectacles were viewed almost as a disfigurement. As a result, opticians of the 18th and 19th centuries came up with amazing and often beautiful ways to make these accessories.

From opera glasses, to early coloured spectacles, contact lenses, and magnifying glasses; humans have come up with some pretty impressive objects to help us see. Rather than focusing on the more technical aspects of optometry, the MusEYEum tries to put the history of spectacles in its social context, and really gets you thinking about how important sight, and its correction, can be. Personally, I got a little too excited about the handling collection, which allows you to try on actual historic spectacles, including Victorian pince-nez, monocles, 50s plastic retro behemoths, and early 19th century blue specs. Some of the displays feel downright steam-punk, but then again this is the history that our modern Victoriana trends are based on. 

An old-fashioned museum packed with things to explore, the MusEYEum is rapidly increasing in popularity and visitor numbers. So you'd better arrange your visit before it gets way too mainstream. For appointments, contact Curator Neil Handley

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