Museum-goers in London are spoiled for choice. There are museum covering every subject from ancient Egypt to modern football clubs, from gardening to steam power and from canals or Docklands history to contemporary design. It can be rather fun to sometimes visit some of the more obscure displays, to find out something new and get a different perspective on our city. And it’s a good place to pick up new geeky tidbits of local history.
But did you know there’s a museum all about the history of the Christian movement called the Salvation Army in the area? It’s right by Denmark Hill train station, in the huge William Booth College building.
Tidbit: the building was designed by renowned architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott – you can see from looking at the front that it’s by the same chap who had a hand in the power stations at Battersea and Bankside (now Tate Modern) and Cambridge University Library.
The Salvation Army Museum is housed on the third floor of the building. I’ve got to say, it wasn’t very busy when I visited last week.
And I can’t say I ended up taking much away with me in terms of new insights into the Salvation Army as an institution – to be honest, my cultural reference to the SA is mostly based on the tuba-playing Harold Bishop from Neighbours.
The displays started out more like a historical text book on the walls, telling the history of the founding of the movement – there were some rather charming objects on display, including armbands from around the world with Salvation Army in different languages.
The display was keen to explain the aims of the Salvationist movement and how their work is carried out.
But beyond this, the narrative of the exhibition didn’t tell me much about the church itself. After visiting I’ve no idea what the SA stands for spiritually, or what it means to be a member – just that they like music and helping people. There’s nothing to do with what the faith really involves – just how it’s acted out.
Much of the display is devoted to describing what the SA does today and how far the movement has reached around the globe so far. It’s all very impressive, but by the end it had all begun to seem to sound like a sales pitch – all rather self-congratulatory, and not really about anything at all.
So I was left wondering who this museum was for? Who is it aimed at?
It seems that if you were already a member of the Salvation Army the level of information would probably have been covered already. So it’s not for SAs themselves.
Perhaps it is aimed at people who are waiting to be ‘saved’ by the evangelical mission? With little about the tenets of the faith, it didn’t seem to be that persuasive.
Whoever it’s aimed at, it’s on the third floor of an incredibly austere building in Denmark Hill, with no signage outside, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s little passing trade.
While the quality of the presentation and display was rather strong, my visit there just left me wondering, rather than answering any of my questions.
If you’d like to go and see it for yourselves, it’s free to enter.
Tuesday – Friday 9.30am-4.00pm
William Booth College, Champion Park, London, SE5 8BQ.