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What Is the Cuming Museum?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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The Cuming Museum is a small art museum in London’s Southwark borough, located in the southeastern part of the city. Its focus is primarily on life in Southwark from early Roman times through to the present day. The museum boasts a robust collection of artifacts, displays, and presentations on how the quality of life has evolved and changed in the region over the centuries. Also unique to the Cuming Museum is the personal collection of curiosities from Richard and Henry Cuming, the museum’s original benefactors and founders.

Richard and Henry, a father and son from Southwark, spent much of the mid-19th century traveling the globe and collecting artwork and artifacts from Asia, Africa, and what is now Australia. Most of these they put on display in their stately home. As one of the region’s wealthiest families, they spent most of their time in Southwark entertaining and hosting guests.

Henry inherited the entire collection, but in his will left instructions that it be used to form the basis of a museum to be located in Southwark, designed to give the entire community a chance to see the artifacts. The Cuming Museum opened in 1906 with exactly this mission. It was housed in the historic Newington Library building, and consisted of rotating displays of the nearly 100,000 objects, all with descriptions, brief histories, and collector’s notes.

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In the late 1990s, the Southwark Council, a local government entity, endorsed the expansion of the Cuming Museum to provide information on not only the personal collection of this Southwark establishment family, but also on life in Southwark through the ages. By 2006, the museum had relocated across the street to the building that once served as Walworth Town Hall. It occupies the majority of this renovated structure.

The modern Cuming Museum contains three main galleries. In the first is a permanent selection of Cuming family treasures, including a room modeled after a sitting room in the original Cuming house. Artifacts and curiosities are displayed on shelves and mantelpieces just as they might have been in the family’s heyday.

A second section is devoted to Southwark history. This section brings the Cuming in line with a handful of other British museums that are focused on specifically regional history and customs. The Southwark gallery includes notes, photos, and artifacts on daily life in the borough from the first Roman settlements to the present day. Types of museums in this genre primarily exist to serve the local community, and the Cuming is no exception. Visitors from all parts of the city and the world are always welcome, however.

One of the most unique things about the Southwark portion of the museum is its interactivity, designed with families and school groups particularly in mind. Children are invited to dress in regional costumes, for instance, or learn from historically dressed interpreters. They can also try their hand at all sorts of chores, tasks, or rituals they might have taken part in had they lived long ago. For this reason, the Cuming Museum is one of the best intersections of museums and kids, at least in the South London area.

The final section of the museum is dedicated to rotating exhibitions. Most of the time, these displays are drawn from the vast Cuming collection, but sometimes they are borrowed from other museums. Temporary exhibits generally run anywhere from one to six months.

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