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
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.