A Beginner’s Guide To East London’s Cultural Gems

This article is aimed at those who are new to London, or who have not fully explored east London.

Continuing our series on London’s cultural compass points, this month we look at the treats the east has to offer. Once home to London’s slums and workhouses (and still the location of London’s worst poverty and deprivation), east London is now a global centre for creativity and innovation. A combination of (relatively) cheap land, unoccupied buildings and demographic diversity have proven to be a fertile breeding ground for art, fashion, music and culture. Squeeze yourself into your skinniest jeans, wax your moustache and hop on your fixie as we discover the highlights of east London.

Shoreditch & Bethnal Green

You don’t need a street sign to tell you when you’re traversing the borough boundary from the City into Hackney. The buildings drop from 20 storeys to two, and the uniform suits give way to a rather more alternative look. At the southernmost boundary is community favourite the Whitechapel Gallery, founded in 1901 to ‘bring great art to the people of East End’. This is a mission statement it continues to fulfil more than a century later, championing brilliant artists and local talent in its beautiful Arts and Crafts building. Its current monogram show, a retrospective of photography and film by Chris Marker, runs until 22 June.

Whitechapel Gallery.

Whitechapel Gallery.

Just around the corner is Raven Row, a not-for-profit gallery and exhibition space in Spitalfields. You can see its current group show, Play What’s Not There, until 22 June. Continuing north, a cluster of galleries around Shoreditch High Street station offers a great selection of contemporary art. The famous (infamous?) Boxpark, a stack of shipping containers turned into pop-up shops and eateries, runs regular art exhibitions along its central upstairs walkway. Take a look if you’re running early for one of the monthly taxidermy workshops (we’re not even kidding).

Across the road, Hales Gallery’s intimate space on the ground floor of the Tea Building can be relied upon to show bold, cutting-edge work. Richard Galpin’s colourful installation, Elephant, is showing until the end of May, with new work from Rachael Champion in June and July. A little further up Shoreditch High Street, the ramshackle Howard Griffin Gallery can be found. Despite its blink-and-you-missed-it shopfront, the gallery is well worth seeking out — the recent retrospective of Berlin Wall graffiti artist Thierry Noir was both informative and a lot of fun. A new exhibition of work by minimalist Mexican artist Pablo Delgado runs until 8 June.

Despite it’s reputation for bleeding-edge trends, Shoreditch and Spitalfields aren’t all about the modern. Dennis Severs’ House offers visitors the chance to step back in time in beautifully-preserved surroundings. Part museum and part visitor attraction, the experience defies categorisation. Visits are typically conducted in silence; leave your cynicism at the door. Even more mysterious, if only because it so rarely open its doors, is the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street. This early 18th century townhouse was first home to Huguenot silk weavers, then Irish immigrants, then East European Jews — making it a fitting place to tell the story of immigration to London. It will be open for just two days in June — check the website for more details.

Dennis Severs' house by Missusdoubleyou in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Dennis Severs’ house by Missusdoubleyou in the Londonist Flickr pool.

The V&A Museum of Childhood houses a collection of childhood-related artefacts from the 17th century to the present. Much like the main site in South Kensington, the Bethnal Green outpost runs a diverse range of temporary exhibitions and events alongside the permanent collection. The Great Diary Project, until 12 October, explores the impact of significant historical events on children and teenagers through their diaries. Hand Me Over Hand Me Downs considers adoption in the UK, particularly of children from China.

Dalston, Kingsland Road, Stoke Newington

As Shoreditch has become ever more popular, the tidal wave of gentrification has washed further north along the A10. Flowers East, the Kingsland Road branch of the Mayfair contemporary art gallery, has a big and bright space with a changing programme of selling exhibitions. During June and July, you can see recent paintings by Royal Academician Terry Setch.

A little further north is school-trip favourite the Geffrye Museum. Contained in a row of almshouses (London’s earliest social housing) is a series of typical middle-class English living rooms from the last 400 hundred years. Documenting how we lived in an accessible and engaging way, the Geffrye Museum explores notions of class, culture and social identity through interior design and furniture. Complementing the room settings is the beautiful walled garden, showing a similar progression in English tastes in gardening from Elizabethan times to the present day. A smart, modern gallery space houses temporary exhibitions. The excellent Useful + Beautiful: Contemporary Design for the Home is on until 25 August.

Despite the gravitational pull of the West End, Dalston’s Arcola Theatre has established a reputation as a powerhouse of performing arts creativity. Founded in 2000, Arcola works with established names and up-and-coming talent to produce high quality, innovative work. It has no fewer than five shows in June, including a very modern take on Waiting for Godot and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel.

If your appetite for culture still isn’t sated, and you haven’t be sidetracked by the excellent Vietnamese and Turkish food en route, the lovely Hang-Up Pictures in Stoke Newington is well worth a visit. Featuring work by innovative contemporary artists, the programme of exhibitions is always diverse — recent shows have included a beating human heart in the window and an infinity coffin.

Tower Hamlets

Further east, the Museum of London Docklands tells the story of London through one of its most valuable assets — the river. Without the Thames, there would almost certainly be no London, and this excellent museum explains why. More accessible, and arguably more engaging, than its City counterpart, the Museum of London Docklands covers 2,000 years of history. Particularly impressive is the honest and sensitive exhibit dealing with one of the most significant — and shameful — sources of London’s prosperity: the slave trade.

The museum, housed in a Georgian sugar warehouse on West India Quay, is arranged across several floors — don’t aim to do more than one in a single visit. As you might expect, there is more content than you could see in one day. This year, it will stage its biggest ever temporary exhibition: Bridge. From June to November, visitors will have the chance to explore London’s bridges and their impact on Londoners through historical and contemporary art, photography and film. Londonist is the media partner.

A mile up the road, in Mile End, is the Ragged School Museum. When Dr Bernardo came to London in the late 19th century, he opened the Ragged School as a place where poor children could get a free basic education. An authentic Victorian classroom has been recreated, and each year 16,000 children experience a lesson as it would have been taught back in the day.

Further afield

While theatre might be thin on the ground out east, Arcola isn’t the only show in town. The Theatre Royal Stratford East has been in continuous operation since it was built in 1884. Artistic director Kerry Michael continues a long tradition of producing plays that tell the stories of people who are normally under-represented in London theatre — those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds in particular. The theatre also champions the development of new musicals. It has an extensive programme of education, outreach and audience involvement work, including the Open Stage community curation project. See the website for details of the many shows and events it runs throughout the year.

Dagenham might not feature on many lists of great cultural destinations, but that would be a mistake. The mediaeval manor Valence House, now a museum and local history centre, was voted by the Guardian as one of the best free things to do in London. Recently refurbished galleries focus on archaeology, local people and riverside industries. A new exhibition, When The Heroes Came Home, commemorates the First World War and runs throughout June.

Valence House

Valence House

Last but by no means least on our journey to the east is the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. Winner of The Art Fund Prize Museum of the Year 2013, the gallery is set in Morris’s Georgian house in Lloyd Park. Two exhibitions run over the summer: Help Is Better Than Sympathy tells the story of Belgian refugees during WWI, and calligrapher Diana Furlong shows artwork reflecting the seasons in Zoom In Zoom Out. These accompany the regular displays in the recently renovated galleries devoted to Morris and his work during the Arts and Crafts movement.

What have we missed?

Of course, there are far more galleries, museums and cultural venues than we can possibly hope to list in one article — these are just some of our favourites. For an in-depth and current guide to East London’s art galleries, check out First Thursdays. Organised by the Whitechapel Gallery, it’s a regular late-night opening of all the art galleries in the east — and the website provides a handy guide to where they all are.

See also: cultural gems of north London and south London. (West coming soon.)

By Rob Kidd