Colin Sorensen

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The Independent Online

Colin Edward Sorensen, museum curator: born London 15 June 1930; Deputy Director, Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art 1960-69; Assistant Keeper, London Museum 1970-75, Keeper of the Modern Department, Museum of London 1975-93 (Emeritus); married 1966 Lovat Burn (two daughters); died London 3 August 2001.

Colin Sorensen was multiply skilled in an age which seems to be strangely uncomfortable with polymaths. His most important single work was the creation of the modern collection of the Museum of London.

Such an immensely demanding task could have been completed only by someone with Sorensen's comprehensive knowledge of the topography, life, work and leisure pursuits of London. It may have been difficult at times to acccommodate such a passionate non-specialist, but it was the museum's great good fortune to acquire such a man when he was needed and it was much to the museum's credit that Sorensen was given space to develop his ideas.

Born in London in 1930, Colin Sorensen went to the John Lyon School and, afterwards, to the Ealing College of Art. He served from 1951 to 1954 in the Friends' Ambulance Unit, where for some time he was working with refugees and displaced persons, then in 1954 he went to the Royal College of Art where he graduated in 1957 with the silver medal for a thesis on "Nineteenth-Century Suburban Theatres in London".

This was the first fruit of what was to be a lifelong interest (one of many) in popular theatre and music hall. The thesis is now of historic interest in its own right. The fieldwork was done at a time when theatres and music halls were being scythed down in their scores, with little or no protest and frequently without record. Many years were to pass before such buildings and their designers (dismissed in the 1950s as insignificant hacks) became subjects for serious study. Many of Sorensen's photographs, taken with a folding Brownie using long exposures, are unique records of long-vanished theatres. Of the empty and decaying Bedford Music Hall, he wrote: "I couldn't resist photographing the stage boxes from the very spot where Sickert must have made his notes and sketches."

The Bedford view alone must rate as one of the most painful records of a shamefully disregarded monument of popular culture. Sorensen's pictures of the Old Mahogany Bar Mission in the East End were the first and only complete modern records of Wilton's, a giant "first generation" pub music hall. Subsequent surveys and studies of Wilton's (well-known today as the home of Broomhill Opera) have all called on Sorensen's work for information now otherwise irrecoverable.

Some of his sketches, photographs and memories of theatres, transatlantic liners and urban scenes were still being distilled into highly evocative paintings to within weeks of his death. Sadly, only one exhibition of his work has ever been held, in 1992 at the Museum of London, when it received warm reviews. His tiny painting of the view from the country end of Liverpool Street station, a magical twilit study, is only one image to remain in the memory.

From 1960 Colin Sorensen was deputy director to Basil Taylor at the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art, where he worked on the monumental Dictionary of British Artists until the Foundation transferred its research work to Yale. In 1970 he joined the London Museum, then situated at Kensington Palace, as an Assistant Keeper. When that museum merged with the Guildhall Museum to form the Museum of London in 1975, Sorensen became Keeper of the Modern Department.

The new museum started with a serious deficit in post-1700 material. Sorensen was disturbed to find that the combined collections paid considerably more attention to little Londinium, the Roman outpost, than to the great metropolis which, by the mid-19th century, had become the centre of a mighty empire. He immediately set about repairing the gaps by collecting and creating.

It was his firmly expressed view that a Museum of London could not simply exploit the material it had happened to acquire. Its task was to recount the biography of London and the biographical account must be complete. If relevant objects could not be collected to illustrate some essential matter, then another way had to be found of dealing with it. And all this had to be done in not much more than four years, from what amounted to a standing start.

Here, the vision of the artist and his knowledge of theatre and film were all brought into play. Models and "sets" were created, visual cross-references were made and music was used to reinforce the message of the displays. The story of London to the present time was made comprehensible in such a way that, for a visitor leaving the museum, London itself could almost be seen as the final exhibit.

None of this now seems extraordinary, but it was innovative and highly influential work in its time. The continuing influence on the museum of the Sorensen philosophy has been generously acknowledged by past and present directors and only now, nearly 30 years after their conception, are his displays being slowly renewed. At the same time, another of Sorensen's absorbing interests is about to bear fruit as the Museum of Docklands, under Chris Ellmers, a one-time assistant and co-worker.

Film was one of the significant "other ways" to be exploited (not as much as he would have liked) by Sorensen. He never missed an opportunity to point out that film-making had been an important industry in London throughout the 20th century and, by its very existence, had become, almost unnoticed, a significant witness to the life and physical appearance of the capital city. The use of London locations by non-documentary film-makers meant that many radically changed places,vanished buildings and extinct industrial and social activities had been recorded as backgrounds, a fact generally overlooked by those concerned solely with film as art.

Sorensen insisted that, when the new museum opened at the Barbican, its lecture room should be designed as a cinema. His "Made in London" film seasons, which ran at the museum for 16 years, attracting the Donats, Evelyn Laye and many other stars to attend, presented films as serious art works, but also as evidence of a London industry and as windows into London's past. This was, for him, a museum activity at least as important as the display and interpretation of static objects. In 1996, his last exhibition, as Keeper Emeritus, "London on Film", prepared with assistance from the National Film and Television Archive, celebrated the first public showing of moving pictures before a paying audience in London.

Colin Sorensen's extraordinary breadth of knowledge, his range of interests and his visual memory produced some quite astonishing results. Walking in the East End on museum business, his attention was taken by a derelict synagogue, whose demolition was imminent. He was, at first, puzzled by its obviously second-hand entrance doors, sporting lion masks, then he remembered having seen an old photograph of the showman George Sanger standing in front of the entrance to the circus in Westminster Bridge Road which he had managed in its latter days.

Sorensen was able to make a positive identification within hours and the doors of the world's first permanent circus building, Astley's Amphitheatre, are now on display in the museum, splendidly restored to their original livery. I know of no one, then or now, who could have made such a connection and saved such a significant relic from the demolition contractor's bonfire.

It would be altogether too easy to turn this account into a dim echo of a Sorensen conversation – inclining to monologue – which on any single occasion might range from the novels of Charles Dickens (he seemed to have a Dickens database in his head), the sculptural impact of the great ocean liners, the theatrical design skills of Frank Matcham, the music of Arthur Sullivan and the iniquitous dispersal of the expertise of the GLC's Historic Buildings Division, to the artistry of music-hall performers and their songwriters, finishing with a scathing critique of the ways their work is misrepresented today.

But, for me, Colin Sorensen's most rare and endearing quality was his respect for knowledge, wherever it was to be found. You were as likely to find him in deep discussion, on terms of equality, with a market stallholder or a former Lyons teashop "nippie" as with an academic. He was a great Londoner and a lovable, irritating, blazing star of a man.

John Earl