Sir John Soane's Museum (often abbreviated to the Soane Museum) is a museum of architecture, and was formerly the house and studio of the neo-classical architect Sir John Soane. It holds many drawings and models of his projects and the collections of paintings, drawings and antiquities that he assembled. The Museum is located in the Holborn district of central London, England, overlooking Lincoln's Inn Fields. The museum is a Non-Departmental Public Body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
The Museum was established during Soane's own lifetime by a private Act of Parliament in 1833, which took effect on Soane's death in 1837. The Act required that No 13 be maintained 'as nearly as possible' as it was left at the time of Soane's death and by and large that has been the case. Towards the end of the 19th century a break-through was made to re-connect the rear rooms of No 12 through to the Museum in No. 13 and since 1969 No 12 has been run by the Trustees as part of the Museum, housing the research library, offices and, since 1995, the 'Soane Gallery' for temporary exhibitions. The Museum's Trustees remained completely independent, relying only on Soane's original endowment, until 1947. Since that date the Museum has received an annual Grant-in-Aid British Government (this now comes via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport). The Soane Museum is now a national centre for the study of architecture. In 1997 the Trustees purchased the main house at No. 14 with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund: the house will be restored in 2006 to enable the Museum to expand its educational activities.
Soane's will had provided for there to be a Curator (assumed to be male) and an Inspectress (assumed to be a subordinate female). The architectural historian Sir John Summerson was Curator of the Museum from 1945 to 1984. For much of this period he was assisted by Dorothy Stroud who served as Inspectress from 1945 to 1985.
Summerson was succeeded by Peter Thornton who moved from the Victoria and Albert Museum to take up the post. Thornton retired in 1995, and was followed by Margaret Richardson, the first woman to hold the title of Curator. She had succeeded Stroud as Inspectress in 1985, and served as Curator until 2005.
The current Director of the Museum is Tim Knox, who has abandoned the use of the title Curator. William Palin, son of Michael Palin, is the museum's assistant curator.
The most famous spaces in the house are those in the Museum at the rear. These are mostly toplit and provide some idea in miniature form of the ingenious lighting contrived by Soane for the toplit banking halls at the Bank of England. The ingeniously designed Picture Gallery has walls composed of large folding panels that allow it to house three times as many items as a space of this size could normally accommodate. When visiting, it is necessary to request for the panels to be opened and wait for a group to gather before this is done.
There are half a dozen living rooms in Nos.12 and 13, many of them highly unusual, but often in subtle ways. The domed ceiling of the Breakfast Room, inset with convex mirrors, has influenced architects from around the world. The library reflects the influence of gothic design and is decorated in a rich 'pompeiian' red. The Study contains a collection of Roman architectural fragments and the two external courtyards, the Monument Court and Monk's Yard contain an array of architectural fragments, Classical in the Monument Court with its central column or 'pasticcio' representing Architecture and Gothic in the Monk's Yard, filled with medieval stonework from the Palace of Westminster.
Soane's collections included approximately 30,000 architectural drawings, ranging from a book of drawings of Elizabethan houses by John Thorpe to the largest collection anywhere of Robert Adam's original drawings. There are also architectural models. 15 of Giovanni Battista Piranesi's original sketches of Paestum hang in the Picture Room. The collection of Neo-classical sculpture collection includes both plaster and terracotta works by John Flaxman.
From the painting collection, the best known are by William Hogarth: the eight canvases of A Rake's Progress and the four of his famous political satire Humours of an Election based on the Oxford Parliamentary Election of 1754. There are also three major works by Canaletto.
The alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I lies in the basement of the museum in what Soane called the 'Sepulchral Chamber'. After it was added to the collection a three day party was held to celebrate the event.