Ever since she was a history mad teenager, Sonia Solicari had her heart set on a career in museums. Employment advisers warned her it was a highly competitive field, and she should think again, but nothing they said could deter her. ‘I was brought up in Enfield so when I was 15 or 16 I started volunteering, and over the years I found voluntary work at the Museum of London, the Museum of the Order of St John, Epping Forest District Museum, and the Cuming Museum in Southwark.’ It wasn’t just her passion for history or the connection to the past that old objects conjured that drove her to pursue her dream. ‘Museums are often located in wonderful places, and I’d soak up the atmosphere and the cultural setting that makes them part of a local community.’

After university, Sonia found work at the V&A, curating ceramics and paintings, then moved to the Guildhall Art Gallery and London’s Roman Amphitheatre, before her appointment as Director of the Museum of the Home, in 2017. It’s one of London’s quirkiest museums, housed in a row of 18th-century almshouses, built with money bequeathed by Robert Geffrye, a 17th-century merchant, Lord Mayor of London and slave trader.

Museum of the Home
The Museum of the Home is set in Grade I-listed 18th-century buildings and gardens. A wide-angle shot of the almshouses in the sunshine. The view is down the central path towards the exterior of the chapel. Jayne Lloyd

A huge renovation project has been undertaken under Sonia’s direction and the museum has been closed for two years. Progress was delayed by the pandemic, but visitors are in for a treat when it reopens in March 2021. New basement galleries will explore subjects thematically. ‘The home is universally relevant but deeply personal, not every museum can say that,’ says Sonia. ‘Everyone has an experience of home, or a lack of it, so everyone can engage with us.’ The new exhibits will examine style, taste and personal narratives. ‘How is style linked to identity, social change and status? What does the wallpaper you choose say about you? How much are you influenced by social pressures?’

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Alongside the new, the core of the old museum remains little changed. Chronological recreations of London interiors allow visitors to wander through rooms dating from 1630 to the 1990s. As well as the old favourites there are two new interiors. ‘The Victorian room has been redone to illustrate the fascination with spiritualism and seances. We have also added a new version of Michael McMillan’s West Indian front room of the 60s – and we’ve started thinking about what comes next.’

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Museum of the Home
The new 1970s Room Through Time, curated by Michael McMillan, is inspired by his popular West Indian Front Room exhibition at the Museum in 2005–2006 Geffrye Museum, London: Photograph by John Neligan

Where does Sonia’s own taste fit in with the array of styles on show? ‘I’d describe it as maximalism with a neo-Victorian slant. I love velvets and rich colours and buy most of my furnishings second-hand. I’m very fortunate to live in south-east London, with all its amazing antiques shops. My taste is quite consistent but, every so often, I’ll see beautiful images of Modernist homes and think I’d like a more streamlined existence, but the clutter always creeps back. In lockdown I watched the film Performance starring Mick Jagger and was inspired by the interiors. Maybe
I could do Victoriana via Sixties psychedelia as my next project.’

Sonia’s most prized possession is an unusual one. ‘It’s a tiny little theatre that was used in the 1930s as a prop for a perfume shop window display. My grandfather found it discarded outside a shop. It’s covered in dark red velvet and there’s a stand in the middle for the perfume. I love it because it’s like a little theatre for any object I want to showcase and I can change the objects when I want to. Even at home, I can’t help curating.’

Museum of the Home
Sonia’s most prized possession, a tiny theatre that was used in the 1930s as a prop for a perfume shop’s window display.

Museum of the Home are hosting a yard sale on Saturday 12th March to raise money for London's homeless women and families. Find out more and how to buy tickets.