In the early 50s, cinephile Ronald Grant was an apprentice projectionist in Aberdeen. Later, he moved to London to work for the British Film Institute and the Brixton Ritzy, but a fortuitous trip back to his home city saw him save sets of beautiful lobby cards that had been marked for the dumpster.
With the closure of cinemas around the UK from the 60s and 70s onwards, Grant’s passion for all things film drew him into a race against time and developers, as he embarked on a quest to rescue historic equipment and furnishings being ripped out of abandoned cinemas and picture houses. Over time, an enthusiast’s collection became an extensive archive of historical and social importance, and the Cinema Museum was born.
One of Britain’s most eccentric museums, the Cinema Museum is set in an archaic Victorian warehouse within a Lambeth NHS complex. This treasure trove of cinematic nostalgia has provided an invaluable archive for researchers since it was co-founded by Ronald Grant and Martin Humphries in 1984. In 2011, the Cinema Museum survived a threat to its existence after the museum building was proposed for sale. Today, the museum is still engaged in efforts to secure its future with public funding.
Amassed by two men over 60 years, the Cinema Museum’s quirky collection is a film buff’s fantasyland. Harking back to pre-digital days when ‘going to the pictures’ was a ticket to another world, the extensive collection includes more than 17 million feet of film, more than a million photographic images, countless old cinema posters and even the fragrance once used to mask the smell of smoke in auditoriums and picture theatres. One-of-a-kind items are also on display, like an ashtray created for a 1931 Sherlock Holmes film and an accounts book showing that a cinema pianist was drunk and had to be replaced.
Charlie Chaplin, the museum’s unofficial patron saint, spent his early childhood in the area, moving from place to place with his mother and half-brother. In 1898, at their lowest point, they were forced to stay in the Lambeth Workhouse, the site the museum now occupies. This link to film history is a great source of pride for the Cinema Museum, which is currently trying to persuade Lambeth Council to erect a memorial statue in tribute to its famous son.
Set in historic surroundings in Kennington, close to the Elephant and Castle, the Cinema Museum is an atmospheric space for cinema-related film shoots as well as an ideal venue for film festivals, screenings, book launches and exhibitions. Spaces for hire include the lofty main hall and the 36-seat screening room, which features old-school cinema seats and illuminated signage. Previous events hosted by the Cinema Museum include a festival of Werner Herzog films and an evening of Nathaniel Dorsky films.