The life and death of the Catford Prefab Museum and the eternal re-birth of the prefab Museum
“The first attack must evidently be made upon houses which are damaged, but can be reconditioned into proper dwellings… The second attack on the housing problem will be made by what are called the prefabricated, or emergency houses. On this the Minister of Works, Lord Portal, is working wonders. I hope we may wake up to half a million of these, and for this purpose not only plans but actual preparations are being made during the war on a nationwide scale…”, Churchill said in a speech to the nation in March 1944. He was mentioning prefabs for the first time. More than 150,000 of them were built all over the UK in 1946 and 1947. A temporary scheme which lasted much more than the expected 10 years and proved being one of Britain most successful social housing programmes.
The Prefab Museum on the Excalibur Estate
Created in March 2014 as a temporary museum, the Prefab Museum in Catford was supposed to last one month. Located in an original post-war prefab on the Excalibur Estate – largest post-war prefab estate in the UK in a process of being “regenerated” by Lewisham Council -, its aim was to celebrate prefab life by showing art work linked to prefabs and social housing, by letting people experience an old prefab we (the artists, the residents of the estate involved and I) redecorated and furnished with post-war memorabilia. Through parties, events, talks, we also invited the public to share their memories, their photos, their stories about prefabs. We had a huge map in the hallway where people could pin a flag where they knew there were prefabs. My idea was (and still is) to build an archive of a wonderful and successful part of British social housing no museums seemed to be really interested in.
Thanks to an Arts Council England grant for the arts, I got the funding for one month. The Prefab Museum was incredibly successful, attracting people from all over London, the UK and even Amercia, Australia, Canada ! It rapidly became much more than a pop-up museum. People never paid a 5 minutes visit, they stayed on and on and came back. Surrounded by still lived-in prefabs, it also became a unique community tea house where residents regularly popped in, bringing stories and gossips along as well as presents for the museum.
A successful project
After two weeks, people started to ask if we could stay open longer. We also wanted the adventure to continue so we kept going for another 2 months and then another 4! We started to discuss with the local authorities to see if we could even stay in the prefab till its demolition, scheduled in 2017. To our surprise they agreed. To me the museum was also a way to attract as much attention as possible to what was going on on the estate in terms of demolition/regeneration, to raise awareness on how residents had been fooled and mislead by a council interested in getting a very valuable land back…
Then things started to go wrong. Some of the residents we had been closely working for probably feared the rapprochement between us and the local authorities. It’s always the fear of loosing control… We started to have money stolen and things moved and added in the museum without being told. Then we started to receive threatening letters from the chair of the residents’ association: he wanted the museum shot at the end of September. We felt threatened, but kept on going. The Open House weekend was a success, all about the Prefab Museum was a success.
Till the fire. I discovered it on a Thursday morning in October. I had planned to take a group on a visit of the museum and the estate. As soon as I arrived, I saw there was something wrong. The curtains had turned brown and the windows were covered with some sort of dark dust. It was smoke dust. I got in, it was double locked. I had such a shock. I stepped back as I thought there might still be someone inside finishing the dirty job, I called the police and went inside again with them. The fire had clearly been set in the front bedroom on a retro record player, probably with an accelerant. It had been contented there for a while and then the smoke spread to the other rooms ruining almost all our collection.
I was distressed, disgusted, thinking a successful project, which made lots of people happy, which brought them back to a place they loved, they cherished, a part of their life filled-in with nostalgia and memories, could be destroyed by a tiny stupid ugly minority. And in the name of what? Grid, money, jealousy, envy? I and all the people who got involved with the museum were caught in a long-lasting war between the residents and the local authorities. Saving the estate vs demolishing it.to give space for much more lucrative dwellings and buildings.
The fire was classified as arson but the police didn’t bother lead a proper investigation. They closed it as soon as they admitted it was arson. Lack of resources they said. The local authority almost harassed us to get our prefab set of keys back. Compassion was out of their limited vocabulary. The estate residents went so quiet we hardly received a supportive message. The local councillors were keen for us to reopen. But how would you do that, knowing that the arsonist or the person who let in an arsonist in to the Prefab Museum very probably lived down the same road? The atmosphere of the Prefab Museum and all what it celebrated in Catford was never about fear, jealousy and envy. So the Prefab Museum in Catford died with the fire on the 23rd of October 2014.
From the ashes …
Its short history is already part of an archive, a fire could and would never destroy, an archive which is stored in our memories. Each person who visited the Catford Prefab Museum, who was involved with the project has memories of it. Memories they can revive, research, feed and fulfil as the project is continuing: the prefab archive is growing on line and will continue to grow physically in a very near future as the concept of the Catford Prefab Museum will be re-interpreted in other post-war prefabs in the UK. Yes, the arson destroyed most of the displays but it didn’t destroy most of the original materials (documents, films, negatives, objects…) and certainly not the memories. Long life to the Prefab Museum!