Where else to start on my blogging project to visit all the museums of London than with the Museum of London itself? Tucked away on the edge of the financial district – on the fragmentary remains of the old Roman London wall itself – this museum presents the history of London from prehistoric to modern times.
It was built as part of the Barbican residential and leisure complex and opened in 1976, housing an amalgamation of collections that were previously held at the Guildhall Museum and the London Museum in Kengsington Palace.
From Roman mosaics to Saxon weapons and medieval domestic items, these collections are extensive. Often dredged from the muddy banks of the Thames by ‘mudlarks’ (metal detectorists) or discovered by archaeologists under building sites of this constantly evolving city.
It is this sense of change over the past 2000 plus years that is most clearly evoked by the Museum of London. A reconstructed Saxon mud and thatch hut brings to life a very different view of the city from the glass and steel skyscrapers of today. But I think that is one of London’s great pleasures: that fragments of ancient history rub shoulders with modernity.
This city has seen destruction by invaders, devastation by plague and fire, and the regular tides of political and religious controversy.
Parts of the Museum of London itself have seen successful redevelopment and modernisation, particularly the £20 million redevelopment completed in 2010. Upstairs (where you enter) is ancient London, while downstairs is ‘modern’ from the 1670s to the present.
One exhibit that seems to have been there, relatively unchanged, forever is that dedicated to The Great Fire of London.
The conflagration of 1666 raged for nearly five days and destroyed around one third of London (436 acres). It took half a century to rebuild and some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including St Paul’s Cathedral, were created as a result.
The miniature tableau and voiceover readings from Peyps’ eye witness account seems incredibly low-tech today but is nonetheless arresting.
Another exhibit that has stood the test of time is the Lyons Tea Shop façade. The J. Lyons & Co. tea shops were a feature of London life from 1894 until 1981 and the art deco frontage with a ghostly waitress serving inside is very striking.
One of the most successful new exhibits of recent years is the ‘Pleasure Gardens’. This seeks to give a picture of Vauxhall, London’s most famous pleasure garden – where crowded Londoners came to stroll along tree-lined paths and enjoy refreshments, live music and even fireworks on a summer’s evening. This popular, privately run park only the most famous of many such gardens from the 17th through to the 19th centuries.
Entering the darkened exhibition room you hear a giggle and turn to see a gentleman and a maid engaged in cheeky conversation. Soon you are distracted by diners disporting themselves across the way, all in the most gorgeous 18th century garb. The recorded images flickering across floor-to-ceiling screens mixed with trellises and display cases of fashion really bring it all to life.
The moder galleries of the Museum of London follow the cause of the Suffragettes, the 1960s revolution in design, right through to the 2012 Olympic Games. Don’t miss the outrageously gilded Lord Mayor’s State Coach from 1757. Or the gloriously embroidered Fanshawe dress, also from the 1750s.
One of my favourite items in the Museum of London is the gorgeous bronze Selfridges lift, built in 1928. What a seriously glamorous department store it must have been – and still is today! London has always been a city of opportunity and American shopping magnate Gordon Selfridge certainly impressed Londoners with this Oxford Street store.
But fortunes could be made as well as lost and the threat of squalid, disease-ridden slums, debtors’ prisons and severe punishments were always around the corner.
If you are visiting the British capital make sure you visit the Museum of London!
By Natasha von Geldern