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A Tour of The Cinema Museum in London

By Kim Luperi 

As a classic film fan, I was advised by more than one friend that The Cinema Museum was a must-see if I ever visited London. Well, I did last year. Before my trip, I reached out to museum co-founder Martin Humphries to schedule a tour. 

My boyfriend, a film archivist, and I made our way to Kennington in south London the day of our visit. Tucked away off the main street, we found The Cinema Museum housed in a beautiful, historic Victorian building. There, we joined a large group of students, and the tour began. Simply setting foot into the museum sent my film fanatic heart into overload!

Teeming with rare materials, The Cinema Museum celebrates the magic of moviegoing in the age before the multiplex. With a focus on film production and exhibition, the museum takes visitors on a voyage through the medium’s history through unique memorabilia and artifacts, most of which date back to the first half of the 20th century. 

Vintage projectors at The Cinema Museum, London.
One of the very first things we saw upon walking into The Cinema Museum were these historic projectors.

But first, some background on The Cinema Museum

Our tour guide, Martin Humphries, co-founded The Cinema Museum in 1984 with Ronald Grant, a fellow film fan who trained as a projectionist in the 1950s. How did they come to possess such a wide array of material? As Humphries told me after the tour, cinema in the country was in decline in the 1960s and 70s. Frequently, upon finding a theater facing destruction, they’d give beer money to the demolitionists, and the workers let them take anything they wanted. In a span of about five years they were able to save countless items, from posters and projectors to seats, signs, and even ashtrays.

Antique projectors greeted us at the entrance as we peered down a hallway chock full of vintage equipment, its walls lined with theater timetables, seating indicators, and admission boards. With every turn of our heads, we encountered moviegoing gems from yesteryear: posters, photos, signs, and even usher uniforms, along with display cases presenting items ranging from themed cinematic teapots to children’s attendant armbands. Walking upstairs, we entered an area dedicated to Charlie Chaplin (more on that later) that led into the main exhibition hall that serves as a screening room, small café, and shop.

Charlie Chaplin's Tramp silhouette
A larger than life outline of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character stands tall in the exhibition hall.

As we made our way through the museum, Humphries shared information on the history of the building, the movie industry, and the moviegoing experience in the UK. I know a lot about the medium as a whole, but I’m a novice on the other two topics. While I enjoyed learning about the building’s background and its Hollywood connection, the details surrounding early 20th century moviegoing in the UK truly fascinated me. Indeed, that’s something that sets The Cinema Museum apart from any other institution I’ve toured. I’ve been amazed by what movie museums big and small have to present, but highlighting the shared adventure of going to the movies made it a more relatable visit. “No other museum in Britain is devoted to the experience of going to the cinema,” Humphries said in an interview with The history Humphries imparted, along with the exceptional trinkets he pointed out, was the closest I’ll ever feel to experiencing these films how they were originally intended—on the big screen—upon their initial release.  

Usher uniforms under portrait.
A portrait of Edward G. Robinson overlooks vintage usher and usherette uniforms in the halls of The Cinema Museum.

Humphries started by taking us back over a century. The historic building we stood in originally operated as a workhouse at the beginning of the 20th century. The building’s past and present uses overlap through the tale of the home’s most famous resident, future movie star Charlie Chaplin, who grew up in the area. As a young child, Chaplin briefly lived there with his brother and his mother Hannah, a former singer who lost her voice, and, consequently, her livelihood. Eventually, she transferred to a mental health facility and the boys relocated to a boarding school for orphans in Hanwell, West London. The workhouse closed in the early 1920s, and soon thereafter, Lambreth Hospital opened, operating in the space until the late 1980s. The Cinema Museum moved into the building in 1998. 

Exterior of The Cinema Museum in London.
The Cinema Museum is currently housed in a beautiful, historic building in south London.

Humphries traveled a little further back in time when he transitioned to the topic on hand: cinema. The medium’s roots as a working-class form of entertainment date to the late 1800s, and the early movie business in the UK was unregulated. Films played anywhere a projector, screen, and chairs could be set up, including traveling fairgrounds, empty shops, and other locations. However, in 1911, after several serious fires, the UK government ordered that movies could only be screened in purpose-built structures that separated the projection box from the auditorium. (At that time, nitrate film, which is highly flammable, was the norm. This new rule only put the projectionist in harm’s way, not the entire audience.)

Many camera lenses come together for an installation.
An array of lenses makes for a fun installation in The Cinema Museum’s exhibit hall.

Going to the movies was an event in the first part of the 1900s. Advertisements, trailers, cartoons, and newsreels preceded A and B features, which made for a long outing. In stark difference to seeing a movie today, most theaters back then operated continuously from open to close. This meant that while start times were advertised, people often showed up whenever they wanted, entering the program at different parts. This didn’t seem to bother audiences much; they’d simply continue watching up until the point they initially came in. This also meant fans could spend an entire day in the theater. After all, no one was there to kick them out at the end of the show!

Historic movie theater sign indicates that films were shown in a continuous loop
An antique seating indicator board advertises the aforementioned continuous screenings. 

The coming of sound in the 1920s changed the moviegoing experience. The first feature with synchronized sound effects, music, and dialogue, The Jazz Singer (1927), was a massive success. That said, adopting the new technology on a wide scale did not prove a smooth or easy transition. Humphries showed us a 16-inch sound record in the collection, one that could only play on specialized equipment. These records generally worked well when pictures were first released, but as films and their sound discs were circulated, they wore out, leading to synchronization issues; they also broke and scratched easily. Eventually, studios realized they needed a more reliable, efficient system. This led to the eventual development of sound on film, which underwent many modifications until the more recent adoption of digital technology.  

Examples of sound discs, to accompany silent films, on display.
Various examples of sound discs sit on the bottom shelf of this display case.

Unique objects on display

Countless remarkable items are on display at The Cinema Museum. Art Deco was the favored style of British theaters, and that design preference is evident in much of the signage that adorned the walls. Panels advertising ticket prices and seats hung alongside category boards, which informed audiences of the certificate given to the films screening by the British Board of Film Censors. 

Old movie memorabilia showing seating indicators and ticketing boards.
Seating indicators and ticketing boards grace the walls above British filmmaker Michael Winner’s editing Moviola.

Humphries pointed out a rare item, one of the few surviving boards that included category “H” for horrific. This classification began in 1930, right before the debuts of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), films thought too frightening for kids under 16. In 1953, the category was replaced by the “X” rating, with the age raised to 18.

H category was for "Horror" and is not in use today.
The top time table from Castle Cinema bears that unique “H” category. 

We also saw examples of metal tickets, which were common in theaters through the mid-1920s. Each ticket was shaped differently to denote where the patron sat, which made it easy for ushers to tell where to take ticketholders, especially in the dark. 

Another item that’s been lost to time is floral scent. Smoking was allowed in cinemas for most of the medium’s history, and staff frequently sprayed floral scent in theaters to counteract lingering tobacco smell. Humphries told us an interesting story related to this. In the early 1980s, select theaters introduced a new policy: Attendees could smoke on the right side of the theater only. As one might assume, that didn’t make any difference, smoke-wise! By the end of the 80s, smoking was banned in UK cinemas, a move Humphries thought mostly came down to money, not only for fumigation but also cleaning the screen, since tobacco tar stained screens yellow. 

Vintage teapots, floral cans, and other film relics are shown.
The second and third shelves house vintage cinematic teapots, including one from King Kong (1933) that incorrectly shows Kong climbing the Chrysler Building. Cans of floral scent sit on the bottom shelf.

As mentioned previously, our tour ended in the museum’s spacious exhibit hall. There, after we perused books and postcards, we enjoyed a reel of short subjects and classic comedy clips. In addition to containing the impressive array of cinematic treasures we just wandered through, the museum also houses over one million photos and 17 million feet of film, including a collection of early films shot between 1899-1906 from northern English company Mitchell & Kenyon. 

Hall where films are currently shown.
The Cinema Museum’s main stage in the exhibition hall is where their screenings take place. 

The Cinema Museum also hosts a wide variety of public screenings, from silent films to mid-century rarities to 21st century indies. Suffice it to say, I’m already looking forward to my return trip; next time, I’ll be sure to align my visit with a pre-Code or film noir program! 

Trinkets and memorabilia featuring legends ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Indiana Jones to Betty Boop fill the space in the main exhibition hall, in addition to a large collection of vintage movie equipment. 


Kim Luperi is a Los Angeles-based classic film historian and writer who loves pre-Code Hollywood, screwball comedies, and all things Greer Garson. You can follow her on Instagram at: @precodedotcom


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