A thousand years of fan history at The Fan Museum, Greenwich

I love an obscure collection, and I’d had Hélène Alexander’s collection of fans on my list for a while. The Fan Museum opened twenty years ago, and has since added to her original collection via various bequests and gifts.

In a period building in the historic part of Greenwich, the museum consists of a ground floor containing the permanent collection, upstairs housing temporary displays and exhibitions and with a orangery decorated with murals in the basement for that all important afternoon tea ;)

In the reception and hallways un-mounted and un-folded fan leaves (paintings on vellum) are shown in frames; sometimes in bespoke arc-shaped frames which I loved. These date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

At the time we visited, upstairs had Treasures of the Fan Museum on display – the selection above some of the fantastically (sorry!) intricate lace and embroidered fans. The skill involved in making these objects – all handmade, don’t forget – is humbling.

The Parisian 19th century lace fan above has rubies and diamonds on the guard, and rose diamonds embroidered into the point de gaze lace itself; amazing to think what this must have looked like catching the light at a dance in candlelight…

'Different parts of the fan' poster

The poster above illustrates the various parts of the fan’s construction.

Some fans had been historically made from ivory and tortoiseshell – boo, hiss – but it is difficult not to be impressed in the craftsmanship involved in working the materials.

I was aware of the ‘sign language’ of fans historically being used in the art of flirting and seduction – how one holds it; to what degree it is open etc – but this playful aspect of fans is also visible in their construction.

Some contain built in mirrors to discreetly check out over your shoulder, the ‘mask’ one above has peek-a-boo eyeholes to hide behind, and the giraffe one has a built in stylus in its guard with which to write down the name of your dance partner!

Fan with accompanying documentation

Also on display in the temporary exhibition were documents associated with the design, order and cataloguing of fans which was intriguing to see alongside the objects themselves.

The collection is home to fans from all over the world, from the 11th Century until present day and covers the history, manufacture, and use of fans in all aspects of society.

More info
The Fan Museum
12 Crooms Hill, Greenwich,
London SE10 8ER

Tuesday – Saturday: 11am – 5pm
Sunday: 12pm – 5pm

£4 / £3 conc / FREE for children under 7, Art Fund, London Pass holders and Friends of the Museum.


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