Open House London 2011: Sir John Soane Museum

Sir John Soane Museum & House
12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields

The Soane Museum is a set of three houses, Numbers 12, 13, and 14, on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.  Soane designed the house as both a home to live in and as a space to display his vast collection of plaster casts, statues, artifacts, drawings, paintings, and much more.  Not all of the spaces are open to the public.  One of the houses is to devoted to research and study and is closed to the public.

Sir John Soane was appointed Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in 1806.   He invited his students to come to his house to study and to sketch from his growing collection the day before and the day after each lecture.  By the time John Britton published with first description of the Museum, Soane’s collection was being referred to as an “Academy of Architecture.”

In 1833, Soane negotiated with Parliament to preserve his house and his collection for the benefit of “amateurs and students” in architecture, sculpture, and painting.  The house was turned over to a trust in 1837 when Soane died.  The trust aims to keep the house as close to what it was to the time of his death and to keep it free for students and the public to come and see his amazing and eclectic collection.


I walked up to the entrance of Sir John Soane’s house, which was open for London Open House.  I had just missed the tour, so I went next door to take a gander at the Soane Museum. I figured it would give me a better sense of what I has seeing in his house next door if I went and looked at the museum first.  I was not prepared for what I walked in to.  I don’t think the shock came from the sheer volume, but from the fact that what I was looking at was real: actual mummies from Egypt, real pieces of corinthian capitals from ancient buildings in Rome, 17th century Flemish stained glass windows, Indian ivory tables and chairs.  I found it absolutely enchanting.  I would like to go back and see it again.

One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered about his collection is  in regards to the sarcophagus of Seti I.  In 1824 the British Museum had first dubs on the sarcophagus but they didn’t want it.  (This was pre-Rosetta Stone so no one could read the hieroglyphics on it to identity its former occupant.)  Soane snatched it up for a mere £2,000.  The sarcophagus is a 3,000 year old casket carved out of a single piece of alabaster.  So proud was Soane of his new acquisition, that he threw three separate parties to show it off.  Women would bless their stars at its age and wonder who in the world was buried in it.

For London Open House, they opened up the house next door used by researchers and academics.  It was mostly archives, but The Adam’s Room on the second floor was quite spectacular.  They had several glass model cases arranged in the office just as Soane would have had them. (They closely studied photographs of the office from the time of this death in 1837 to know where to place them.)  Inside the cases are the original cork models from the 1830s that Soane and the Adams Brothers made.  The trust is working on expanding the museum to incorporate this office where Soane worked.  The Adam’s Room has 85% of every drawing the Adams Brothers ever made.

All three buildings are currently connected, which was not the case in Soane’s day.

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