by Ann Balfour Paul, Curator, Gunnersbury Park Museum
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 3 (1982)
The highlight of last year’s activities was undoubtedly the Lion of the Punjab exhibition. It was arranged to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839), one of the greatest of Sikh heroes and creator of a Sikh state in the Punjab early in the nineteenth century, hence his title “Lion of the Punjab”. The two London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow have between them the largest concentration of Sikh residents in the UK.
The months of preparation included raising money to implement adequate security (much of which is now of permanent benefit to the Museum), negotiating with the local Sikh community over innumerable aspects of the exhibition and of course arranging the loans. The idea of the exhibition had come from the Indian Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum and it was they who provided the bulk of the exhibits: Ranjit Singh’s Golden Throne, Sikh and Punjabi arms and armour, metalwork, jewellery, woodwork, textiles, documents and pictures. There was also a supplementary exhibition produced largely by members of the local Sikh community, on the history of Sikhs and Sikhism.
After the rush to get the exhibition ready in time with many of the Sikhs’ plans still uncertain and forever changing right up to the last minute, the opening ceremony was nevertheless a great success. Speeches were given in front of the Museum portico, the speakers festooned with garlands, to hundreds of Sikhs in gloriously colourful costumes. For the lucky ones there were Indian sweets and samosas in the Temple, freshly painted for the occasion (to cover another year of graffiti). From then on each Sunday saw queues of Sikhs across the Park waiting patiently for their turn to examine the riches of their heritage (older generations were particularly anxious to teach their British born children something of their heritage). Others sat in large circles on the lawn transforming the area into a mini-India. They came in coachloads from towns throughout the UK bringing the attendance to a total of 35,000. This included visits to the programme of lectures and an open air Punjabi festival.
I don’t suppose there could ever be an exhibition at Gunnersbury quite like the Sikh one again! The rest of last year’s activities may seem mundane by comparison. But as with all exhibitions, different groups of people were attracted to the Museum each time.
In September-October we had our second annual exhibition and demonstrations by West London Craftsment. Over Christmas we held a colourful show of Embroideries and Other Works by Marjorie Kostenz who lived her last years in Ealing. She was first married to the artist Mark Gertler but later lived in Provence, whose villages, landscape and local traditions provided the inspiration for her drawings, paintings and embroideries.
Our travelling exhibition Poles to Poles was something of a disappointment, being a purely graphic account of exploration undertaken through the Royal Geographical Society. We did, however, manage to locate some mountaineering equipment from our cellars to supplement the graphics.
Of greatest interest to the people of Chiswick must be our recent exhibition Life and Work in Old Chiswick. This was organised by members of the Old Chiswick Protection Society and the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society, in conjunction with the Museum. Humphrey and Dickie Arthure, of both societies, collated most of the exhibits covering a wide range of photographs, pictures and artefacts. Mr Arthure’s book of the same title has already sold out its first edition. As an added attraction, James Wisdom and Val Bott produced an illuminating slide/tape show following a walk along Church Street and the Mall. The popularity of the exhibition was shown by an attendance of 9000 and the various associated walks and lectures were equally well supported. We hope that more local groups will be thus encouraged to research their own exhibitions for display in the Museum.
Our main attraction for the summer was an exhibition on The Golden Mile: The Great West Road & its Industries’ (17 July – 12 September 1982). Mr Bevis Hillier, Chairman of the Thirties Society and an art historian of considerable repute, opened the exhibition at the private viewing on 16 July. The exhibition consisted of photographs, architects’ drawings, plans and perspectives and examples of the manufactures of some of the firms. The exhibition considered the reasons for the construction of the Road, its opening in 1925, the changes it brought to the Brentford area, the growth of industry along The Golden Mile and the architecture of the various factories, many of them in the Art Deco style. Several of the firms which have occupied premises on the Great West Road were covered, along with life and work in the factories and the recent change’ from a manufacturing area to one of warehouses and the office headquarters of internationally known companies.
During the last year we have made further changes to the Entrance Hall. We now have a new sales desk with a wide selection of publications for sale on local history and objects in the Museum, and a large shop window showcase for changing displays on aspects of the Museum’s collections or of a temporary exhibition. The hall has been redecorated in a rich colour scheme while the wall panels await graphics on the history of the estate, the Museum, the Chiswick Press and printing.
Work on the collections has included checking and reboxing most of the costume. The same work by a second volunteer is being done to another large section of our reserve collection. As we have over 16,000 exhibits in the Museum there is much that we only know of from the accession cards and it is always a pleasure to uncover unseen treasures from the stores. Although our reserve collections are used for temporary exhibitions and study, we hope to show a wider selection on a more permanent basis as we reorganise our main displays.
Finally, some of the recent acquisitions include archaeological artefacts from Chiswick Eyot and Down Barnes, Greenford; a range of domestic items etc, particularly kitchenware; a wedding waistcoat c 1840 and a sample of brocade silk c 1770 from a dress said to have been worn at the coronation of George IV; a pencil and colourwash of Kew Bridge 1837 and three 1930s oil paintings of Strand on the Green by F W Cox; a baker’s bread cutting machine; a wooden half model of a Thames Barge; part of the trousseau, 1849 of Betsy Eeles, of Little Ealing Farm and family archives; engineering equipment including a Napier aircraft engine model from Acton Technical College; a jacket and shoe-black’s equipment from the ‘Cherry Blossom’ factory.
The Museum is free and open daily.