I don’t mean to keep bringing my personal life into the Project, as it shall now be known, but sometimes necessity overtakes desire in the quest to fulfil. Just one post ago, I fleetingly referred to my holiday in order to explain a week-long absence. Now it’s time to mention a new bed — a new bed which I had to wait in for — to explain why I only managed to knock off a single Thing in a whole day off. Note to self: need to up the game, Jeffery, if you’re going to succeed at this.
I’ve been to the Museum of London before but, because of the circumstances, never got to look around any of the exhibits. As I remember it, the evening revolved around drinking wine of both colours, watching Stewart Lee analyse the cover of Franklyn Ajaye’s 1974 comedy album, ‘I’m A Comedian, Seriously’, then retiring to the rightly maligned and now-closed Slug and Lettuce. If you want to relive the dream, wine of both colours is available in many shops, the Stewart Lee sketch is on the Comedy Vehicle DVD and many other Slug and Lettuce pubs remain open for business. I don’t recommend getting as drunk as I did, though; the ugly lass from the Tube didn’t stop texting for days. Anyway, the point I’m making is that this doesn’t count as a visit. So I could do it as a Thing.
So, bed delivered, I went off to meet Ian (@iandeeley) and Nick in one of the City’s many fine Pret-a-Mangers. Then, after a short work down London Wall, the real fun began: there’s an escalator up to the museum. From street level! An escalator! That goes from the pavement! It was just like the inclined travelator episode all over again. Up we went. Up to the middle of a building site. Turns out they’re having work done, although those with a penchant for builders’ hoardings and scaffolding will find it a complementary (and, much like the museum, complimentary) bit of fun.
Wordplay out of the way, we can safely move on to logistics. There’s a Benugo (Coke £1.10), locker room (£1), voluntary donation box (£3) and toilets (free) in reception — the same reception desk where free tickets for guided tours are available. We didn’t bother, but what did you expect? Maps (free) in a variety of European languages are available. After returning with leaflets entitled ‘Vous êtes ici’, it was suggested Nick’s well-meaning endeavour hadn’t quite come off.
It’s an odd place once you’re in. None of the galleries feel the same — or even broadly similar. There’s a curious mashup of artefacts, mock scenes, dioramas, video shows, interactive displays and artwork. It’s probably fair to say that not all of it will appeal, especially if row after row of cripplingly dull and irritatingly similar hunting spears don’t rev your engine. They’re in the London Before London section of the museum, by the way. That’s where, perched just next to the reconstruction of the Shepperton Woman, I saw Stewart Lee that time. London Before London is the first part of the museum you come to and, should you wish, you can learn about the Thames (fact: it used to start in Wales and contribute to the Danube), look at animal skulls (including that of an aurochs) and look at row after row of cripplingly dull and irritatingly similar hunting spears.
Things get better as you move on (unless you’re a fan of ancient hunting tools, in which case the experience has peaked and you should leave). The Roman London exhibit is based around a couple of mock living environments (one of which housed another, lesser, comic) replete with tiled surfaces. There’s also a diorama of a typical Roman-era street scene. I took an arty (well, f/1.8) photo of it:
Continuing on through Medieval London, where 1150 years of history is condensed into a similar number of square feet, things very much remain at the ‘stuff to look at’ stage (including a pewter knight and some ‘fashionable shoes’, c.late 1300s) – although there is a dressing up box one can play with. Not that we did, of course. And, even though the opportunity was there, nobody pointed and sniggered at the displayed codpiece.
Things start warming up once you turn the next corner, though. WAR! FIRE! PLAGUE! Twenty five years of pure historical action, climaxing in a double whammy of pestilence and ruination. For those whose dressing up appetite was whetted in the Medieval era, there’s a couple of fireman’s helmets to try on — one modern, one decidedly more seventeenth century. Those with excessively styled hair can opt to watch moving pictures in one of the two mini-cinemas instead. One shows a film on the plague (standing only, although lightweight folding stools are available to take around) and the other rolls on the fire. At this stage, about an hour in, the talkies provide a welcome opportunity to set the brain to neutral for a bit.
The journey to the present day continues after a flight of stairs.
The Modern London (1670-) areas are set around an outdoor garden (which, I’m happy to report, is both bee-friendly and non-smoking) and feels much more modern than the upper part of the museum. Rather than putting artefacts at upper-body level, where they can be seen, some latter-day joker (probably a descendent of the chap who designed Bank station) put them under the floor:
The Wellclose Sqaure prison cell (c.1750) is worth a look. Its wooden walls are engraved with the names of those incarcerated within. Some went for quality, others quantity. On the outside wall of the cell is an exhibition my nervous disposition won’t let me entertain, namely: ‘dark hole with an object in it, stick your hand in and work out what’. (Top tip to anyone like me: you can open the doors and a little light will illuminate whatever’s in there. Darwin will sort out those who put their hands into dark, mystery-filled, holes.)
Following your entirely expected escape from prison, you can celebrate with hatters, housewives and harlots in the nearby Pleasure Gardens. The floor is covered in AstroTurf, the ceiling changes from daylight to night time and a number of projectors show an evening’s goings on across all the walls. For the record, an evening’s goings on is largely restricted to catering, cavorting and courting (and hat-wearing). Look out for the bloke relieving himself against a tree, just as the lass he’s chasing passes. Hilarity and innuendo ensue (something about ‘a small one’).
Just beyond the Pleasure Gardens is the Victorian Walk. You can visit it once you’re over the comedic thrill of the Pleasure Gardens’ thinly veiled knob gags. The Victorian Walk is a mock-up of a Victorian high street, complete with tobacconist, public house, bank, tailor, baker and gentleman’s urinal. It’s all very nicely done, even down to the scents in each shop. There’s also the odd thing to raise your eyebrow:
After some art deco loveliness, accented by a 1928 lift from Selfridge’s, the horrors of World War II are available for inspection. As someone who is more interested in the anthropological aspects of history, it was bloody marvellous. A spotlit bomb is suspended from the centre of the ceiling in a darkened, black-walled, room. A video wall shows wartime imagery. Disembodied voices recountmemories of camaraderie and friendship, hand in hand with experiences too gruesome and harrowing to imagine today. A surround sound system assaults the room with a barrage of overhead aircraft, falling bombs, anti-aircraft guns and nearby explosions. It’s incredibly well done and well worth the time to sit through.
The rest of the Modern London area is filled with things that’ll be familiar anyone who’s not been in a fifty year coma; a Vespa scooter, some Bill and Ben puppets, a model railway set. You know the sort of thing. You can even mock-up a plate for the front page of a newspaper:
All said and done, the Museum of London is splendid. It’s clean and well presented, everything works properly, there’s plenty of staff – but they’re hands off. Photographers and lingers can rejoice in equal measure; the whole place exudes a wholly pleasant and laid-back atmosphere. If you’re not massive into history or archaeology, the first half is hard going: there’s lots of reading and not much to get involved with. But it’s worth studying some of it to get the context of London’s foundations. It’ll also allow you to leave feeling like a rarefied academic.
Allow two to three hours. Walk there from Barbican LU (Metropolitan, H&C, Circle) or ride a Boris Bike to the large dock on London Wall, just below the museum.