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Tucked away in Walthamstow village, the Vestry House Museum has long been an important, if modest, archive of the east London district’s history.
Now, the institution is undergoing a £4.5m revitalisation that will build on Walthamstow’s reputation as a leading destination for culture in the British capital.
Vestry House opened as a museum in 1931, the building having served a variety of functions since its construction in 1731—from a parish workhouse to a police station and armoury. In its current form it has, over the years, built a vast collection of artefacts relating to Walthamstow life: from a 80,000-strong collection of photography to oil paintings to the Bremer Car, which was the first four-wheeled petrol-engined car produced in the UK. The museum is also famed locally for its tranquil, volunteer-run garden.
The redevelopment will take the museum’s ambitions up a gear. Made possible through the UK government’s Levelling Up Fund—as well as an £800,000 contribution by the local council—it will move much of the museum’s storage off site, creating space for workshops, temporary exhibitions and educational facilities.
This added flexibility will allow Vestry House to better represent the realities of contemporary Walthamstow through its programme. “A lot of our museum collections stop in around 1960, and we know we are currently telling a rather monocultural story,” says Sorrel Hershberg, the director of the museum and the head of cultural sites development for the London borough of Waltham Forest. Hershberg plans to bring more works out of the archive, while the museum will develop more collaborations with artists and institutions from the local community—in doing so, “reflecting the very diverse population and activity that takes place in the borough,” she says.
Another priority is to emphasise the place of the borough—which also houses the William Morris Gallery and has a reputation for street art—as a hotspot for creativity. “That’s a really important aspect of what we’re doing: creating a space where people can make, in a borough of making,” Hershberg says.
The architecture firm behind the project is Studio Weave, which has worked on other local projects in the area, such as the Lea Bridge Library, and has “an understanding of what Vestry House will be: a fine balance between work space, open public space and a reimagined museum”, says Lorna Lee, the assistant director of culture and destinations for Waltham Forest. The firm’s responsibilities will include ensuring the institution is more sustainable and energy efficient.
The work on Vestry House comes at a time of significant cultural development in Walthamstow. The funding to reimagine the space is part of a wider £17.2m Levelling Up allocation that was awarded to Walthamstow earlier this year.
This follows Soho Theatre, in London’s west end, and Waltham Forest Council acquiring a former Art Deco cinema in the area, which will be transformed into a 950-seat comedy and theatre venue. Soho Theatre Walthamstow, recently pushed back to 2025, is expected to bring £34-52m to the local economy over ten years.