Museum of London
I have a mixed relationship with London. It’s crowded by people who seem to think that I want to be hit repeatedly by their back pack. It’s full of stunningly breath-taking architecture, cathedrals to the gods of shopping, privelege, commerce and religion and breath-taking ugliness celebrating public service and poverty. It exploits a crass consumerist culture, pimping bawdy trinkets and cheap plastic goods to sheeple who want whatever branded product is on offer and sprinkled with some of the finest examples of artisan crafts from bakeries to silversmiths, from suits to homewares. It packs thousands of people into a small space and boasts large open spaces full of greenery and beautiful bodies of water. It celebrates fame and privilege in some of the most opulent surroundings, and traps the poorest in society in some of the drabbest estates.
I was expecting – hoping – to see these conflicts and contrasts reflected in the displays at the Museum of London. And to an extent, the museum does touch on these juxtapositions, but perhaps not in the ways one might expect.
On first impressions, the museum appears to be an example of sixties brutalist modernism, built like a concrete and tile citadel, surrounded by a Tarmac moat and accessible only by drawbridges at the top of staircases and escalators. Once inside the escarpments, there is a lovely (if closed-off) oasis of a courtyard garden and the entrance to the museum itself.
Once one has walked past the obligatory cheery greeting, PVC begging bowl and unimaginative gift store, the museum is structured in a linear manner, from distant past to modern day. It starts with a room of backlit glass and steel boasting flint, bronze and steel weaponry from across the years, and truly these ancient manufacturers were prolific as row after row after hundreds of rows of artefacts bear testament. I am quite sure these were all fascinating in their own way, but unfortunately the writing on the backlit and reflective glass was completely unreadable, so the fascination will forever be lost to me.
Moving on we see room after room and century after century laid out in a range of inconsistent displays. Some artefacts were unlabelled, and sometimes the labelling approach was based on a shot-gun technique, showing item 14 next to item 1 next to item 7. In some cabinets, you had to know what you were looking at to be able to find the appropriate information panel, a technique which is as novel as it is confusing. On more than one occasion, I leaned in to look at the detail on an item only to find I was thoughtlessly blocking out the light with my inconveniently opaque head. The closer I got to the items, the less I could see.
Does anyone know whether the coach on display is the actual Lord Mayors coach or a replica? The signage certainly didn’t have a clue. Nor did tell us about the symbolic meaning of the iconography adorning it, or the roles of the people involved in its operation. It simply is, and one is supposed to glory in its imposing majesty, rather than learn anything.
The choice of layout very much limits the stories that can be told about London. Whereas I was hoping to be told a mixture different stories about London from a rich tapestry of different people across time, the linear temporal narrative means that developments within particular themes are completely disconnected. Indeed, the Whig arrow of time dominated the displays, with little or no exploration of why things happened in the way they did or the factors which influenced events, merely that they did happen at that time.
There was a display prepared by young people which purported to explore their relationship with London, which consisted in part of uncritical and shallow statements about stuff. The display touched on themes of religion, celebrity, technology, fashion and more and had the potential to open up rich seams for intellectual mining, but failed to deliver more than a tease.
The suffragettes were tucked away, and Moseley and his black shirts got barely a mention. The Tower of London was acknowledged, but its role unexplored. A room was set aside to inform us about the rise of the Pleasure Gardens, accompanied by a video which seemed to be revelling in the shallowness of some of the least well-drawn characters ever to be filmed. The symbolism of St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz was touched on but not explored.
The shop fronts were well presented and contained some gems (I liked the Victorian urinal and the snowflake Christmas card, for different reasons) and some anachronisms (Hovis was 1890s, but in a street which dates to the 1850s). This could, however, have been enhanced with some simple background sounds to bring it to life. And perhaps this could have shown the transition from small local shops and manufacturing to brands.
This monodimensionality continued throughout. The museum tells a shallow story about a place, but fails to capture the spirits of the people and how they were changed. Instead of the relentless march of time, space devoted to women in London and how their experience has changed would have been eye-opening. Exploring the experience of black people, from slavery to fascism to Brixton, would acknowledge their place within London’s past. Examining how industry, commerce and economics have transformed the shape of London and the experiences of Londoners would shine a light on the ways in which our perceptions of money and consumption are formed today. Religion and democracy are given a nod of the head, but nothing more. Is it too much to expect an exploration of London to consider the role of the Lord Mayor and how it’s changed over time, and what that means for our democratic values? In short, instead of a hollow horizontal history of everything (which is, essentially, so thin as to be a history of nothing at all) could be replaced by deep, vertical histories of specific facets of the imperfect jewel that is London.
Now, were I a cynic, I might observe that a museum that clearly owes a great deal to corporate patronage is going to have a vested interest in not challenging the status quo, in not exploring in too much depth and in supporting a narrative which legitimises the power of commercial entities by not exploring the alternatives. I might suggest that a museum that doesn’t acknowledge the complexities of realities is more valuable to a funding base which isn’t interested in anything more than furthering their own profitability than a museum than explores diversity of origin and experience. Instead, we touch on London’s variety only by failing to acknowledge its importance in shaping the city and the people who live there.
London is a city rich in history, people and culture which deserves a museum which presents it in its best possible light, weaving together stories to tell us about how the city we know and love came to be. Unfortunately, that’s not the Museum of London I saw on Saturday. I saw a superficial, uninspired and uninspiring museum which glories merely in the being of London. The museum could – and in my opinion should – be so much more than it is, and I think it does London, and Londoners a disservice. It’s a shame, because I wanted it to be so much more.