The Chelsea Museum

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I had heard a lot of negative things about the Chelsea museum, before I visited it, so my expectations were not that high. On a symposium on football museums, the designer Chris Mather claimed that the brief had said “Get them inside and on to the souvenir shop as quickly as possible”. In fact, I have been told that the development and designing process was just as quick. Five months, it is claimed, it took to plan and build the museum in the 670 squaremetre space in a building behind the Matthew Harding stand at Stamford Bridge. I have also heard fellow Danish museum professionals exclaim how disappointing they found it, but in all fairness, I have not heard many positives about football museums from fellow museum professionals, with The National Football Museum in Manchester an exception.

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To some extent, I can understand the criticism. The exhibition has been put up so hastily that, for instance, the welcoming quote from Albert Sewell, the programme editor “I find it unfathomable: The mystique of Chelsea” is impossible to read in the corridor, unless you use the flash of your camera to lighten up the darkness – and the positioning of the following texts is very poor, and they are very difficult to read because of the small size of the text and the use of white letters on a light blue background.

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And when you look at it, the collection does not seem overwhelming. The exhibition is definitely not carried by the objects but rather by the head- and storylines in huge printing on the wall. And this is often more boastful than informative.To give an example. A collection of shirts are displayed under the headline “On 25th August 1928 Chelsea became the first team in London to wear numbers on the back of their shirts”. Actually, on that day, numbers were worn in two matches, Sheffield Wednesday vs. Arsenal and Chelsea vs. Swansea. Another example of the text, perhaps, going a bit too far is: “No set of supporters has embraced overseas players more than ours. As communication shrinks the globe and Chelsea’s popularity broadens we can truly say that the planet is slowly turning royal blue”. Or what about this quote: “They are a cosmopolitan, philosophical tribe down in west London, they march with the times, sometimes ahead of it: they accept change, knowing that nothing remains static”.

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Apart from the sometimes rather boastful texts, statues of players are used to help the story along when there is a shortage of museum objects. Personally, I don’t like them – I find them a bit ridiculous, but they seem to be a trademark Chris Mather thing with statues also crammed into the Arsenal museum and the now closed Manchester City museum. But I must admit, that the first world war trench in a football museum (which is the iconic representation of WWI in all military museums) took me so much by surprise that I studied the section on Chelsea during the wars more carefully than I would have done otherwise.

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There are other Mather trademark elements. The shooting and reflexes galleries, the photo-sessions, the 3D film. Which probably gives the impression of the exhbition being both interactive and innovative. But I would prefer a kind of engagement, where visitors could share their stories and experiences, engaging with the exhbition rather than being distracted from it.

Having said all that, I think that there are a lot of good things in the Chelsea museum. It is probably club historian Rick Glanville who was chosen the themes on which the exhibtion focus. Which are the football ground Stamform Bridge, Chelsea at war, Chelsea’s international connections and “swinging London”. True, there are more sections like the shirt one, the “wall of honour”, “What it takes” and a couple of others. But the first four stand out, because they really give you something to reflect on.

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I think it is brillant to spend so much space on two giant models of Stamford Bridge in the sixties with the impressive terracing and the modern ground. Among the exhibitits are wooden chairs from 1966-97 and a shirt from the campaign to save the Bridge in the 80’s, There is a really good mixture between texts, photos, a digital timeline, and screens that contrast the football experience “then and now”. Comparing and contrasting is always powerful in museum displays. Perhaps it would work even better, if the wooden seats were supplemented by modern plastic ones.

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This tecnique is also put to good use in a showcase in the “Players, managers and directors – even grandstands – come and go, but the supporters always remain. What changes have the generations of Chelsea fans witnessed over more than a century of football at Stamford Bridge?” display. A shinpad from the 1920’s besides a modern one. Tracksuit tops from the 60’s and today. Boots and football – juxtaposed so they show change. And in this way making very good use of the apparently rather limited collections at the museum’s disposal.

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In the Chelsea at war session, the eyecatching trench experience may be a bit too much. And technically speaking, the relatively large amount of text is not comme-il-faut in museums. But the stories about Bob ‘Pom Pom’ Whiting, who was found guilty of desertion on the day of his child’s birth – and was eventually killed by shell-fire in 1917 – and the Chelsea manager Bob Birrel defusing an unexploded bomb on the stadium terrace in order for a match to go ahead, are the sort of vivid stories that you remember long after a musem visit. It may be that the texts are longer than the perceived norm. But if they had been shorter, they wouldn’t have conveyed such interesting stories. And there are really interesting objects as well. For instance the visitors book from Wembley, signed by Eisenhower attending Chelsea vs. Charlton in 1944. In fact, that story could also have been unfolded even further.

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Judging from the objects on display, the bulk of the Chelsea collection has been presents from trips abroad along with a programme collection. So a lot of these objects have been used to illustrate the “Blue planet” section. This section does add a further understanding of Chelsea to an outsider like me. The year after the club was formed, in 1906, they toured Europe with Denmark the first port of call – which was not that common in those days. They went to South America for three months in 1929 – and featured a Jamaican player in the 30’s (but no mentioning of present owner, Abramovich). Perhaps the section could have been more focused around these events (there is, for instance, a travel itineray exhibited in another part of the exhibtion which would have fitted in better here than some of the other objects, although as a Dane, it was great to see the ball from Nils Middelboe’s debut in 1913.). But for facts/stories that are suited for presentaion in the museum medium, these are very well selected.

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And I also like the “Kings Road Swingers” section. The graphics. photos, quotes, Peter Osgood-related objects and music (the 1972 “Blue is the colour” Cup Final record) really gives a wonderfully cohesive impression of Chelsea as part of swinging London. The objects in themselves are not sensational, but the staging of them in a context is well done. Perhaps there could have been a bit more focus on Peter Osgood – but instead Raquel Welch is quoted: “Tell them Osgood is not forgotten on the plains of Almeira”, accompanied by a photo of her in a Chelsea kit during a film shooting. Certainly to someone who grew up in those years, it works better than more didactic museum texts about what the sixties and seventees were like. But the section would have been even better with a session devoted to fans’ consumption of the games – where the cup final rosette from 1970 and the satin “Butch Wilkins” scarf could be displayed

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These sections alone were, to me, worth the entrance fee of £ 10. All achieved without that many objects. Perhaps the most interesting collection of objects in the museum is the “Harold Millor Collection” to which there is allocated three drawers in a display case. And it is among them you find a travel itineray from the 1929 tour. But the presentation of this collection is one of the less fortunate examples of the haste with witch the musem has been built. There is no text telling who Harold Miller is/was. As he features on a match photo, you can guess he was a footballer. But what was special about him? And the collection? Besides, the drawers are difficult to pull out and the informarion about the objects sparse.

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Character: The focus on the Bridge, the King’s Road Swingers – and to some extent the Chelsea at War and Blue Planet – demonstrate a high awareness of the strengths of the museum as a means of communication. The juxtaposing of selected objects also shows a great positional awareness. But the boastful appearance along with the sloppiness with texts and the presentaion of the Harold Millor Collection really detracts from the overall impression. Missed opportunities. Fernando Torres? Perhaps not boastful enough. Robben’s spell at Chelsea?

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Posted in Football museum

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