More About the House
Samuel Johnson was a preeminent 18th-century literary and cultural character, and his house at 17 Gough Square, dating from around the 1690s, is a remarkably untouched time capsule from the Age of Enlightenment. The building has operated as a literary historic house museum, Dr. Johnson’s House, since 1911 and celebrates Johnson’s life and work, and those in his circle and the 18th century more broadly.
The Dr. Johnson’s House Trust plans to re-envision 17 Gough Square as a House of Words, the birthplace of Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language, which was created in what has long been known as the Dictionary Garret on the top floor of the House—an iconic space in the development of the English language. The Trust seeks to engage new audiences locally and internationally, to enhance the exhibits, to make the site more physically accessible, and to secure its future financially. Samuel Johnson and his circle offer myriad stories through which to explore a diverse range of issues that resonate today, including: literacy, literature, and history; friendship and grief; power and slavery; gender and identity; and living with mental and physical disabilities. Thanks to Boswell and others, this household and Johnson’s distinguished broader circle are extraordinarily well-documented. They provide a fascinating glimpse into Georgian life, women’s struggle for education and intellectual acceptance, early Black British history, overcoming extreme adversity, and the lifelong pursuit of learning and intellectual stimulation.
The Trust proposes to build on the House’s rich associations with language and literature in its greatly expanded educational and outreach offerings. The House desperately needs more space, new exhibits, and enhanced infrastructure to accomplish these goals and attract and serve a larger and more diverse range of audiences and partners. As things now stand, however, the House is not accessible for people with mobility impairments, and the Trust has neither the space nor the personnel to realize its potential to entertain, inspire, and educate.
For now, all activities take place in the House itself, whose original dog-legged staircase makes enjoying the house difficult, if not impossible, for many. There are no wheelchair-accessible toilets, elevators, dedicated learning spaces, collections storage, workstations for visiting scholars, or proper kitchen facilities to cater events and private hire. As a result, the Trust is limited in its ability to reach schools, hold events, provide exhibitions, furnish staff with sufficient storage and office space, and generate the income needed to make the Trust sustainable and resilient. Staff currently consists of a director/curator, a part-time accountant, and a part-time museum intern. With an endowment of only £1.5 million, the limitations that accessibility and infrastructure challenges place on potential income, and Covid-19’s impact on visitor numbers, the Trust’s financial resources are severely constrained. Yet before Covid, visitor numbers and learning visits had more than doubled, and recent grants had enabled the Trust to repair the facade of the House and do urgent maintenance, proving its potential and capability of capitalizing on opportunities through resourcefulness. The Board has also recently been reinvigorated with new expertise. To maximize the House’s impact and to ensure its future, the Trust is therefore taking steps to revivify and transform itself.
The 18th century is known as the Age of Johnson for good reason.… He lived in London for 47 years, and during that time he lived in 17 houses. The House in Gough Square is the only one that survives. He was there for the ten most prolific years of his life. He was a great supporter of the underdog and of the underprivileged. He was a strident opponent of slavery, and he has a great deal to say to us today.… We hope to dramatically enhance our offerings. We want to re-envision the House as the House of Words. We want to do this for a much broader, much more diverse audience.
Stephen Clarke, Chair, Dr. Johnson's House Trust
An Extraordinary Opportunity
Fortunately, an extraordinary opportunity has arisen to buy the adjacent building, which has an elevator and space sufficient to achieve the Trust’s strategic aspirations. This new building would allow the Trust to create a learning center, new welcome and exhibition spaces, and by sympathetically linking the two buildings, full accessibility. It would transform the House’s ability to host learning and community-engagement activities, enhance the visitor experience, and enable the Trust to earn much-needed commercial income to support its future through shop and ticket sales, as well as private hire. Given that the Trust now has but a single full member of staff, the Trust also wishes to endow additional staff posts to enable it to expand outreach, to enhance interpretation, and to secure the long-term financial future of the House while creating local and virtual linkages and marketing its program to larger and more diverse audiences.
To say that this is a small window in time to save an international treasure is not overstating the case. Only through the purchase of that adjacent building can the House be made accessible without resorting to the visually undesirable and structurally intrusive option of adding an external elevator to the north facade. That would severely damage the appearance of the house and would reduce natural light within the building by blocking windows on each floor to allow for entry points. Also, it would not provide the extra space that is essential for outreach and engagement, income generation, and exhibition enhancements. Given the House’s current limitations, it needs the adjoining building in order to remain an independent, self-supporting heritage site.
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