If you are visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Greenwich, London, a stroll along lovely Crooms Hill will take you to a pair of beautiful early Georgian period townhouses - the perfect setting for a unique collection. Open to the public since 1991, the independent Fan Museum is the only organisation of its kind devoted entirely to the history, culture and craft of the fan. Small in scale but with a loving attention to detail, it is worth your time for the impressive breadth of the collection. It is a must for anyone interested in the social history of fans, fashion and style.
The Museum’s stated purpose is “to promote awareness and appreciation of the diverse history, culture and artistry of fans and fan making”. This is achieved by the collecting, conserving, documenting, studying, exhibiting and making of fans.
The Fan Museum would not exist without the efforts and vision of the couple who founded the collection, fan expert Hélène Alexander and her late husband ‘Dickie’ A.V Alexander. Thirty years on, the dedicated curatorial team (assisted by volunteers) continue their work. Over 80 special exhibitions have been staged and the museum has welcomed over 300,000 visitors.
The Fan Museum houses two collections of international renown: the Hélène Alexander Collection of fans and associated fan-making tools and materials (formerly owned by the Museum’s founder) and The Fan Museum Trust Collection, comprising gifts, bequests, and acquisitions. The latter is also available to be viewed online, as part on the ongoing digital database. Together the collection comprises over 7,000 items, encompassing 1,000 years of diverse history and culture. Highlights of the collection include a Fabergé fan with gold enamelling, Japanese court fans and a rare Elizabethan period fan.
I visited the Fan Museum in August 2023, and upon entering the period premises I was warmly greeted and given an introduction to the museum, it’s highlights and navigating the building on both floors. Starting in the Green Room on the ground floor, the numerous displays introduce the varied styles of fans used throughout the ages, examples of the variety of materials and the techniques used to create them. Fans are composite objects and the wide array of different materials used are highlighted – these include papers, vellum, silk, shell, ivory, metal, feathers, exotic woods, and more. There is also a film which documents the origins of the museum and the story of the founders.
Highlights of special interest are a fan painted by the artist Walter Sickert, plus a rare surviving example of a 16th Century flag fan. Also available is an audio guide, which adds additional context about the exhibits and content from the museum’s curators.
An essential item for fashionable ladies, the fan reached its apotheosis in popularity in the 18th / 19th Centuries, when it was widely used for issuing secret communications from the user – ideal for flirting. Various signals, such as ‘we are being watched’, ‘I wish to speak to you’, to the bolder ‘I love you’ could be conveyed using specific fan gestures (aimed at the right person!) A personal favourite for me was the fan emerging from a pistol-shaped handle (dual purpose indeed).
The staircase is adorned with framed examples of the art of fan painting, mostly dating from the 17th Century. There is also information about the Museum’s connection with The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers, one of the City of London’s livery companies.
There is a dedicated space on the upper floor of the museum devoted to staging temporary exhibitions (usually changing every few months), reflecting a particular style or theme and highlighting in detail individual items from both the permanent Fan Museum collection and loans from other prestigious archives, such as the Royal Collection and State Hermitage Museum. These are supplemented by period costumes and other artifacts to enable historical context. Contemporary artists who have created fan designs have also been featured.
When I visited in the Summer of 2023, the current exhibition, ‘How To Get There: Travel and Holidays’ used the theme of leisure and travel from the 18th Century Grand Tours to the 20th Century, reflected in the artwork of the fans on display. It was beautifully presented and full of detail, and being able to walk around the central glass display cases was an advantage, enabling me a good view of the wide range of fan styles (gathered from across the globe).
The next exhibition at the museum will be ‘Boxed In, Framed Out: Fans & Their Boxes’ (from November 2023)
Another important aspect of the museum’s work is the ongoing conservation of the collection using the specialised knowledge and delicate handling of the conservator and curator. Fans are cleaned and stabilized to extend their life, rather than restored.
A visit to the small but extensively stocked museum shop (also available online) is a must. Here you can purchase lovely fans themselves, along with fan-themed stationery, jewellery, accessories and books on their history and making techniques.
The museum offers popular fan making workshops for those wishing to try techniques for themselves (bookable online). Digital events also occur throughout the year, such as online talks from curators, lectures and exhibition tours.
Researchers can make an appointment to access the onsite archive of rare book editions, catalogues, academic dissertations and items not on display.
If you are spending the day in historic Greenwich, a visit to the Fan Museum (whether or not on a boiling hot day as I did), is a charming and informative stop away from the crowds, in elegant surroundings. It is a perfect example of the type of small, slightly quirky museums that Britain does so well. Plus using a fan is the perfect eco-friendly way to keep cool (feathers and gold enamelling optional). The revival starts here!
12 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, London SE10 8ER
Wednesday to Saturday 11.00–17.00 Last admissions 16.30*
Admission Charge (Concessions available) * Check Museum website for seasonal closures*
Social Media: @thefanmuseum (X, Facebook, Instagram)
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I’m Lea Stone, and work as part of the dedicated library team for a Higher Education college in Greater London. When not surrounded by books I can be found lurking in cathedrals, galleries and museums around the UK, but my home city will always be my first love. I am endlessly fascinated by the evolving story of London: its history, architecture, landscapes, the most atmospheric pubs (London Gin and tonic for me if you’re buying!) and smaller museums. The medieval and Eighteenth-century periods are of particular interest, also Art Deco buildings.
Instagram / X: @LeaAStone