This week, in our ongoing quest to explore interesting bits of London that we’ve not yet experienced, we decided to act like tourists.
No, we’re not talking about congregating in large groups and milling around aimlessly in front of ticket barriers and escalators, although that seemingly popular tourist pastime does sound like fun. No instead we’ve opted to check out mainstream ‘tourist attractions’, to see if they are really worth the attention that visitors to our city pay to them.
So, having seen it many times from a short distance away, but never having visited, we decided to investigate the Museum of London. Just getting to the museum is quite a curious journey – a short walk from St Paul’s or Barbican tube stations would bring you to the edge of the London Wall roundabout, where a variety of stairs, lifts or escalators (depending on which direction you’re coming from) take you to an elevated walkway over the roundabout itself. On the edge of the walkway is the museum entrance – by the time you reach it you’ll be mildly disorientated. Fortunately it’s all well sign-posted.
The museum was mainly taken up with a number of permanent exhibitions, each chronicling a different chunk of London’s history. By taking the right directions (helped only slightly by some rather obscure arrows), we were able to explore London’s lengthy evolution in chronological order.
Before entering the first permanent exhibitions, we noticed a very modest display off to one side, whose centrepiece is a ‘Book of Tributes’ to the victims of the July 7th bombings last year. Containing details of the lives of each and every person who lost their life as a result of the bombings, it was certainly a very touching exhibit.
Starting at the beginning we entered the ‘London Before London’ exhibition, introduced at its entrance by a rather good animated aerial video sequence portraying the area’s changes since prehistoric times. The exhibition’s title here is no exaggeration – it summarises the area’s evolution from as early as 450,000 BC, when literally only a few dozen people lived in the area! Needless to say, the area changed immeasurably over the next few hundred millennia, both in terms of habitation and geography (and probably human evolution as well). Despite being understandably more based on intelligent speculation than some of the other exhibitions, we found this section to be one of the most fascinating, as it gave us an insight both into the formation of the land that we now live on and the species that we are a part of.
Moving from prehistory to much more recent times (relatively speaking – about AD 50 onwards), we passed into the ‘Roman London’ exhibition. It’s hard to nail down exactly when London itself was formed, but many have suggested that this period represents the genesis of our city. Following the Roman conquest of Britain, the town of Londinium was established roughly where our financial City is now and a new type of civilisation and society was brought to the area. This part of the museum concentrated on these changes, focussing in particular on trade opportunities provided by the Thames and the subsequent increase in population. As we wandered around this section we couldn’t fail to notice an odd letterbox-shaped window, which was angled downwards towards a small grassy area just outside the museum building. Through the window, we had a clear view of what remained of the original Roman defensive city wall below us. A large and conveniently located plaque above the window informed us that the wall was originally built around AD 200, but that most of what we can see these days are new additions built on the original foundations (such as the ruins of a 13th century tower). This was a great feature, and the view was only slightly spoilt by the substantial bum-cleavage of some bloke faffing about with some art supplies on the grass below.
The next part of the museum was concerned with ‘Medieval London’. After the Romans got fed up with Britain and buggered off, Londinium fell into disrepair. With invasions by the Saxons and the Vikings coming at a steady rate over the next few hundred years, various new towns and settlements appeared around the area – most notably Lundenwic (roughly where the West End lies today) and Lundenburg (inside the old Roman city walls). This section of the museum chronicled these events in the Early Middle Ages, as well as the subsequent Norman conquest, the Magna Carta, the Black Death and quite a bit in-between. Covering over one thousand years of history, it was a ‘historically dense’ exhibition!
The latter exhibitions covered the Tudor and Stuart periods, as well as the 18th and 19th centuries. To be honest, as impressive and comprehensive as these parts of the museum certainly were, we found them less stimulating than the earlier section. For us, there is less wonder in these periods, which are neither so distant as to be fascinatingly unimaginable, nor recent enough to provoke a tangible interest. Still, that’s obviously just our personal view (even at school we tended to drift off when history lessons reached this period!).
As our chronological journey entered the 20th century, we were looking forward to a more accessible period in our city’s history. But just as we approached the outbreak of the First World War, the journey came to an end. For some inexplicable reason, the museum’s permanent exhibitions currently cover nothing beyond 1914! Still, the museum’s website promises us that “a permanent 20th-century gallery is being planned”. In the meantime, if you’re interested in 20th century London history, we can recommend the Museum in Docklands (part of the same group), which has loads of stuff on this period.
Although we found some parts of the museum more stimulating than others, we still concluded that our visit was enormously worthwhile. For us, this turned out to be not merely an interesting place to visit, nor just a pet project to see a part of our city often reserved for tourists (even though that may have been our original intention). We left the museum not just much more aware of our city’s origins and history, but having seen some of the city’s historical artefacts up close. For a museum with free admission, we think that’s a pretty good deal.