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A "Fan"-tastic Museum at Greenwich, England


Did you know fans have been part of civilization for at least 3000 years? One of the discoveries in Tutankhamun's tomb was a fan with an L-shaped ivory handle complete with ostrich feathers.  Ancient Greeks and Etruscans make references to fans in life and myth, while painted silk fans date back to fifth-century China.  Until I discovered The Fan Museum, while visiting Greenwich, England, I hadn’t realized that fans were this interesting.

I didn’t know, for example, that the earliest fans were flat ceremonial devices, often covered with gold leaf.  By 1500, folding fans were evident, first in Italy and then throughout Europe. By the 17th century, France had become the leading source of fashionable fans, and by the 18th century, Queen Elizabeth I helped established their popularity in England. And fans are still a fashion accessory in Spain.

This unique Museum—the only one in the world dedicated exclusively to the history of fans and the art of fan-making—is located within two, beautifully restored 18th century townhouses conjoined by a reproduction Georgian Orangery, the perfect setting for afternoon tea.  In 1985, the abandoned town houses built in 1721 were purchased to contain and conserve over 2,000 fans and fan leaves collected and donated to the nation by Hélene Alexander.  After extensive restoration, the museum opened to the public in 1991.

Sitting in the shadow of the Greenwich Observatory, this unassuming, little gem today houses more than 5000 fans and fan leaves from around the world dating from the 11th century to the present. However, only a portion of the collection, often combined with other loaned fans, is displayed at one time in exhibitions that change about every three months. Spokeswoman for the museum Alexandra Moskalenko explained to me that many of the fans are delicate and should not be open and exposed to light for longer periods of time. Neither should the fans be stored in a closed position for extended periods.

If you walk through the exhibitions, you may be surprised to discovered the variety of styles, materials and construction of fans. One mid-18th century fan, for example, contains cut-out eye holes. When held before the face, it provided a no-strings-attached mask, ready for costume-parties or coy flirtations. In some cases, fans are printed on both sides; one side might present a respectable image from an opera or play, while the other side reveals a more erotic scene.

I learned that not all folding fans consisted of single folded leaves; some, like the style made popular by Jenny Lind, had individual petals. There are several "Jenny Lind" fans in the collection, including one of Alexander's originals that alternates blue and white embossed petals tipped with feathers and decorated with curvilinear rococo scrolls swirling around silvered birds, lover's knots and roses. The monture or rib portion is bone with pierced sticks and guards gathered together by a mother of pearl rivet and a thin gilt metal loop.

In addition to collecting and displaying fans, the museum provides research and conservation services, conducts workshops on crafting fans, and creates custom-designed fans for businesses and special events such as the limited edition fan, with moveable clock hands, created to commemorate the millennium in 2000. 

  An excellent example of form meeting function, fans purposefully blend decoration and utility to create a unique work of art, both practical and pretty.  The Fan Museum reminds us that people throughout history have valued this combination that brings beauty into our everyday lives. It also reminds us that sometimes the most interesting travel experiences are found off the well-traveled path. 


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The Art and Writing of Barbara Rizza Mellin