As promised, dear readers, I report back from my venture to London Wall last Thursday. My museum feet are sore and my brain throbs with the enormity of articles crammed into the Museum of London, but God, I’m conscientious. I am here to tell you what I saw and what I thought about what I saw. The area couldn’t have looked more dramatic as I got out from the underground in time to hit the alarming deluge that swamped London at about 3.30pm, and by the time I go to The Museum of London I looked like a shoddy, soaked Roman slave that had got lost and delayed on her way to Londinium.
London Wall has to be the least inspiring building ever built. It’s a 1970s monolith, a horror construction shunted up before the 80s really got going, and backs onto the remains of the old London Wall. The wall and the building have little sympathy with one another and have turned their backs on each other. They are almost as incongruous as a soggy Bluebird, landing on the front desk, umbrella a-dribbling and hat askew gasping out “gotta map for the Museum? I’m soaked and you close in an hour and a half”.
The ladies on the front desk were so polite and nice, bearing in mind they have to deal with swamped fools like me all day. The new part of the Museum, the Modern Galleries which opened to grand aplomb last autumn, has been tagged on to the original section. And what an original section it is. It covers 450,000BC to 1558 AD. The first section, titled “London Before London” covers the period from 450,000 BC to 50 BC. This was the London of hunters, herders and farmers, of lions which lived in the Thames Valley in the Ice Age, of Neanderthals who lived in Esex in 60,000BC – 30,000 BC (thank goodness they don’t live there anymore, readers!). There was an “unlucky elephant’s foot” from this period, unearthed in Essex in 1964. Why would you need an unlucky one? Surely a lucky one would suffice? Either way, from about 400,000 to 30,000 BC Londoners lived beside elephants and tigers and bears, which must have caused havoc on public transport.
I was pleased to see The Museum of London has a poet in residence. Each section has a poem about it’s particular part of history, and it’s a brilliant thing. The Stone / Iron / Mud Age section features the poetry of Bernardine Evansto, who has her job cut out for her. What rhymes with “monkey skull”? In Grays, Thurrock, a macaque monkey skull was unearthed. It’s tiny, cylindrical, peculiar. By 4,000 BC Londoners have basically sorted themselves out, kitchen-wise. Bone tools hang up and there is some lovely pottery. All these artefacts are viewed through glass cases to a soundtrack of forest noises, which makes you think only of rainforests, rather than pre-historic Chiswick, but full marks for trying to make the atmostphere evocative. As you will see, not enough is done to ensure this happens elsewhere.
There is some wood magic! I don’t know what this is but it was lovely. And a Dagenham idol! It is a thing to worship at, if you were living in Essex during the time Jesus was squealing in his manger over in Bethlehem. It’s a idol of a little man, with a bald head. He is tiny, wears a West Ham strip and sits in miniature white van screaming at traffic lights in Barking and has tattoos of accomodating lady friends down his arms. Okay, he isn’t. The Dagenham idol doesn’t actually have any arms, but is a two foot tall, non gender specific wooden statue that looks a bit like Alan Hansen. Then I see, that many household tools created between 4,000 and 2,500 BC are in the shape of jockstraps, supposedly to be used as defences in the event of an irate Stone Age housewife. There is a reconstructed head of “Shepperton Woman”, a lady who lived in approx 3,500 BC in the Middlesex area and presumably got lost on her way to Shepperton Studios to appear in Through the Stone Age Keyhole: Who lives in a hut like this?” . Her face was reimagined through DNA technology. She looks like you or me, and it makes you realise that 5,000 years is nothing in evolutionary terms. The faces whose sides are pressed against i-phones half the time in 2011 are the same shaped faces which were pressed against animal carcasses, swathes of hide and (if you were lucky ladies!) Julius Caesar’s stately,imperial cheek in Roman Britain.
Then something awful happened. It was like what happened at the Transport Museum where I inadvertently broke into a 19th century hansom cab. I broke an interactive piece of machinery. I was aghast. I didn’t think anything like that could happen to me, not in the pre-history London bit – what on earth could I do? Illegally step into a hedge? – but break something I did. Basically, it was a game for children and I still couldn’t work it. It was a “wheel of Roman Britain breakfast” type thing. They have found some pips somewhere in the Thames Valley, and they put them in little plastic cases that can light up. These pips are 2,000 years old. You have to work out which pile of pips is hazlenut, crabapples, blackberries or wheat, respectively. You press which group of rotten, ageing, mouldy pips you think it might be and the right one lights up. But I jammed the answer button, so god knows what they had for petit dejeuner. Although I had just eaten a Cadbury’s Whole Nut, which is a bit like their hazlenut breakfast but with added sugar, so I felt rather authentic.
Onwards, through the Iron Age, there were more knives than in a military garrison. I also noticed that, when stepping up to the glass and almost nose to nose with the offender, I had eye sockets closer together than an adult male skull from 1300 BC that was dredged up in Mortlake. I was more simian than he was. Should I be worried? Am I devolving? Or, is that just a South London thing? The space for the prehistoric area is large, white and more than a little clinical. I would have liked smells that had resonance – sheep milk, farm yard turds, ageing Stone Age man pants, broken blackberries and mulch. That kind of thing. The building that houses the London Museum is not friendly towards the creation of atmosphere.
Shortly after the Iron Age section I came across a Japanese lady asleep next to an interactive mammoth game, having been rendered soporific by the pottery displays. Then – suddenly it seemed – we were in a modern era. Here’s the thing: The Romans turn up, and thank goodness they did. I mean I’m sorry about Boudicca and everything, but Britain would be just another northern European destination without the Romans rocking up and doing clever things with mosaics – I mean, the bathrooms are darling. Their sofas are lovely too. It’s actually an awful shame that for about 700 years after the Romans had left, Britain reverted to the squat toilet and the no-back, hay hair chaise longue with matching cauldron look that summed up the Dark Ages. Interior design-wise, the Romans are the business. The soundtrack that accompanies us through the Roman section changes to one of diligent industry – chopping, sawing, sandals walking and Italians shouting at each other. There are no more forest noises. The Romans wouldn’t stand for it. London is filled with glass-based vases and jugs, strange earrings of beautiful turquoise dug up from underneath what is now a bank on Gresham Street, and a seemingly limitless amount of public baths and – perhaps the worst thing of all – taxation.
At this point a highly antiseptic looking glass wall, built at an angle, to encourage vertigo in the most hearty of Londoners, looms to your right. You are invited to look down on the original Roman London Wall in the bit of garden below. The vision is a splendid one – as it is complete with an irate taxi driver, parked up and shouting into his phone, at its imperial base. From here, we zoom into Saxon world, where a London home circa 1000AD gives the visitor the first chance to actually experience the sense of something. You can walk into it, a dark, dry, not entirely unpleasant place, with a home made bed to the left and a faint smell of horse. As the millenium gets under way, the feel of Europe advancing gets stronger, and by 1200, almost every jug, cup, shoe and quilt are French or Italian influenced. Most of it is so like the chunky pottery with large fruit designs on it that Habitat was churning out in the 1990s as to be uncanny. But it is not all cheer and pleasant milk jugs in the Middle Ages. There is a large area devoted entirely to Black Deaths, and a screen in a darkened room, were a creepy voiceover whispers all the cities in the world where Black Death claimed it’s coughing, wretched, 13th century victims : “Alexandria” a woman whispers, on the screen, accompanied with licking flames of fire swallowing up bits of the part of Egypt where people now go deep sea diving, “Constantinople”, she whispers. Then “Paris”. Then “Preston”, which simply didn’t work ; try whispering “Alexandria” and you sound quite sexy and elegant. Whisper “Preston” and you sound like a bus driver with a porn habit.
They were filthy, of course. There were plagues and leper hospitals, including information on the massive leper burial site now lying underneath Liverpool Street Station. A beautiful, vast collection of buckles, belts, coins and curls was in this section, a model of the original St Paul’s Cathedral and another interactive machine which, yet again, I took the opportunity to break.
Sigh. I don’t know what it is about me but with this one it was a “Middle Ages Interactive Take Away Menu” game. You press the modern takeaway option “Hot Dog!” and you get a picture of an unhappy, short, bald man in 1325 with his equivalent – a sign saying “Sheep’s feet on Caudle”. Then I pressed “Meat Pie” and broke it. I can’t understand why this keeps happening to me. I didn’t even get as far as pressing “Fish & Chips”. Presumably, if I had, the medieval equivalent would have been “Codpiece”.
From there, we are suddenly into Tudor London. The Fire comes and goes, the King comes and goes, and silver and gold relics, kettles pots and pans are everywhere. There is a splendid mock-up of a London living room in the 1650s, but the lighting is so brassy and insensitive that it’s nearly ruined. The informative notes on the panel beneath the window say the sitting room would have been lit by tallow candle. How about helping imagination along a bit by recreating a similar kind of light? Instead, the Museum becomes what it remains for the whole of it’s “modern” section – cramped, anxious, and unable to sit happily in its space. The artefacts are remarkable, the excavations made from the ground and the sitting rooms of Londoners over the last five hundreds are exceptional by any standards, but the displays jar, the labelling is complex and often not adjacent to the item it is meant to label, leading to confusion. There is an interactive “cholera” outbreak area, where touching a plastic panel reveals words like “disease” when pressed, but there is no mention of the word cholera, what the water pump means, or any information on the cholera outbreaks. Children gaze at the display nonplussed. Adults gaze at the display and ignore it, assuming it is for children.
There are some small exceptions. It is inspiring to come across the whole Newgate cell implanted into the beginning of the Modern Galleries, for visitors to walk into, sense the oppression and feel the history. It is resplendent with 18th century prison graffiti. It is also wonderful to touch the original Newgate door; all hunkering, great bolts and massive nails, as if a door for a giant to walk through. But the opportunity to create a awe-inspiring fountain of fire to mark the “Whoops baker – you left the oven on , you Stuart dolt!”” conflagration of 1666 is missed; “1o,ooo houses went up in flame…” says the RADA – trained actor over the darkened room, where a display features small papier mache looking London, with its sorry cluster of muted, orange-ish lightbulbs.
The Galleries of Modern London then, is the new feather in the cap for the Museum of London. And it is a vast improvement on the older sections, partly because of it’s imaginative use of space. I particularly loved the selection of beautiful 17th and 18th century shoes in glass cases underneath the floor. The famous Fanshawe dress is there – the stupidest and widest dress in the world. It’s here, in post-industrial London, that the city seems to come back to us; the London of custom houses, of costume dramas, of coffee houses, novels and plays. We can connect with it, as we recognise it with almost as much familiarity as the London of today. And what a London it is. Twelve foot high wooden models of Scottish Highlanders stood outside most of London’s tobacconists in the 19th century, and two of them are here, leering out into the Victorian promenade area like great bastions of the promise of carcinogenic pleasure. The Victorian street is nobly put together – tailor’s workshop, tobacconist, grocer, public urinal, a rampant display of china dolls in a scary toy shop – but so clean, and so cold as to make people feel nothing. A little cobbled floor, a little soundtrack and – again I think,with smells – a slight stench of manure, and this area, so lovingly designed and beautifully created – would have come to life.
There are some bizarre Georgian pleasure gardens which are so daft that they must be mentioned. Visitors sit in a darkened room, amidst a cheap, white wooden gazebo surrounded by plastic shrubbery. Around this, in a faint- hearted reproduction of Pleasure Gardens, a film of actors, whooping and waving crinolines and passing love notes to each other, plays out behind plastic trees on opposite sides of this awful, dark arena. It’s expensive and incredibly cheap at the same time. As a fitting metaphor for the Pleasure Gardens section as a whole, the Ye Olde Georgiane filme was woefully out of sync.
The walk in poverty map, made famous by Charles Booth, is brilliant, as is the exhibition of Suffragette paraphenalia which would be enough to turn the laziest and most tardy of voters into raging militant feminists. It is actually worth going to visit the Suffragette exhibition alone. Take every woman you’ve ever met who doesn’t vote to teach them a lesson. The most heartbreaking artefacts are those made, sewn or knitted in Holloway Gaol by those suffragettes on hunger strike through the most militant campaign shortly before the First World War. But the exhibits are cramped, and the space left to accommodate them badly signed and underlit. And there wasn’t even anything for me to break here either. Thank goodness I didn’t try to tackle that V1 rocket that was in a glass case, because I’d only have brought on another Blitzkrieg and had confused American tourists running for Moorgate underground station in a bid to survive.
I did like the 1930s telephone, which you can pick up and hear original stories of the early days of the telephone through the receiver. This was great, although no one warned me that the connecting wire between telephone and receiver was so short in the olden days, so I hit myself in the temple with it. There was the window from the Lyon’s House in Coventry Street, which was a shock, as apparently my father sat at it on VE Day watching the crowds in Piccadilly Circus below. Now, if he had turned up in the exhibit that would have been a surprise. However, I think we guarded ourselves against that possibility when we cremated him and illegally shunted the ashes under a bush in the Regents Park. Nothing would have upset that lemon cake I just wolfed in the cafe more than a reconstituted version of a cremated dead father appearing in the middle of the Museum of London in his usual search for Cracker Barrel cheddar.
There was a Lyons Corner House menu, which tantalised the tastebuds. It looked fab. Why don’t we still have them? A lovely silent film of London in the 1920s and 1930s blazed out of an Art Deco imitation cinema, a timely prequel to the destruction of the Blitz. It showed a London where it was compulsory to wear a hat and smoke on the tube at the same time. There is a late 195os winklepicker shoe, but the pointy shoes from 1425 could have taught those rock and rollers a thing or two. The 1960s give a cursory nod to a lovely but lonely Mary Quant dress. If the Museum of London is to be believed, the 60s didn’t swing, they merely hovered in a plastic display case on the way to the shop and conferencing facilities.
The shop is just atrocious. It’s a series of tourist-feeding, red buses on key rings and – bizarrely – old fashioned sweets. It should be a riot. But it’s a missed opportunity, with the exception of the postcards. One tea towel design was available. Two mug designs were available, one of which the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mug you can pick up in any Cards Galore shop. The shop has one book on a current photography exhibit but nothing else that corresponds to the museum. Conversely, the cafe is brilliant.
Ultimately then, is this a violently missed opportunity? Or recognition of the fact that his glorious, galumping, vibrant metropolis of ours, active for 2,000 years and counting, is uncontainable? My advice for visitors is this: look for nothing beyond the articles. This really ought to be an exciting place, but there is no space or room for the articles to be suitably observed and absorbed. There are recorded summaries of what it was like to be a blacksmith or glass engraving apprentice in the 18th century, so some effort is made for personal stories to be told. But the overall impression of this museum for a city in which millions and millions of people have lived, worked, loved and died, is a strangely impersonal one. The accumulation of resources is marvellous in terms of items, but the absence of imaginative resources is saddening. If so much of London is there, why does it feel as if so much of what makes London London has been missed out?
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.