The Museum of London is dead. Long live the London Museum. As our old friend closes its London Wall site, Matt Brown selects his personal highlights from each gallery.
It's rare in life that we get to say a final farewell to a friend, knowing that our paths can never cross again. Such is the bittersweet experience of walking around the Museum of London's site at London Wall during its final days. The much-loved museum is closing forever. This unique window onto city history will be boarded up, redeveloped, and itself become history.
The museum will return, of course. The new-look "London Museum" will arise in the bigger and (it's hard to argue otherwise) better surroundings of Smithfield Market in a few years' time. Meanwhile, the Docklands outpost continues to fly the flag. But we can't let our dear old friend at London Wall close without one final retrospective. Here, then, are the objects I'll miss most from each gallery.
1. London Before London: The elephant's foot
The museum did an excellent job of setting the scene — a whole gallery devoted to the London area of pre-history. Among the many stone axes, bronze shields and other tokens of antediluvian survival, come the animals. Our neighbourhood was once populated with all manner of species no longer associated with Britain. Among them, elephants. This juvenile's foot was found in the marshes near Rainham in the 1960s. The ancient trunkster is thought to have last wiggled its toes — if elephants can do such a thing — 200,000 years ago. Remains of a mammoth were also found nearby. Objects such as this remind us that we have dwelled here for a heartbeat, when set against the boundless aeons of tooth, claw, beak and trunk.
2. Roman London: view of the Roman wall
Here's one thing that the new London Museum won't be able to boast: a direct view of Roman remains still in situ. A window in the Roman galleries looked out onto this crumbling tower, part of the almost 2,000-year-old fort that once dominated the north-western precincts of Londinium. The new venue, hard against the banks of the River Fleet, is too low-lying for Roman structures... but we will get a window onto the Thameslink tracks instead.
3. Medieval London: the other Eleanor Cross
You probably already know that Charing Cross gets the second part of its name from an Eleanor Cross — one of the medieval memorials marking the passage of Queen Eleanor's body from Lincolnshire back to London. A Victorian pastiche of the Charing Cross can still be seen outside the station of the same name.
But London once had a second Eleanor Cross, only a mile away. And, what's more, some pieces of it still survive.
The fragments shown above are relics of the little-remembered Cheapside Cross. The monument stood at the foot of Wood Street which, coincidentally, is now the site of one of the City's most famous trees. The Cross was torn down during Cromwell's Commonwealth, despised as idolatry and a symbol of Catholicism. Remarkably, the two fragments shown above were rediscovered centuries later during repairs to a sewer. They show the arms of England and Castille.
4. War, Plague & Fire: another pox on those Catholics
If I'm being honest, my favourite artefact in this gallery is the Copperplate partial map of London. Dating from the 1550s, it's the earliest known plan of the city and a joy to geek over. It's made of reflective copper, though, and is therefore an absolute git to photograph.
Instead, I'm going to nominate this 17th century plaque, cracked like an Old Testament tablet. You can probably guess its origins from a quick skim read. It once marked the site of Thomas Farriner's bakery on Pudding Lane, in which the Great Fire of London began. The plaque does not mince its words, laying the blame squarely on "the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists" (i.e. Catholics). Their "agent Hubert" was the French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who supposedly confessed to being a spy and starting the fire (though he was almost certainly an innocent scapegoat).
The plaque was removed in the 18th century, for the dubious reason that its many admirers were obstructing traffic.
5. Expanding City: the pleasure garden
Downstairs we go to the newer galleries, whose opening I remember attending in 2010. The first gallery here is packed with fascination, but I always had a soft spot for the most 'experiential' part — the recreation of a pleasure garden. London doesn't have anything quite like this long-lost institution today. Pleasure gardens were a place to promenade and be seen; but also not to be seen during inappropriate assignations, which were often followed through in the bushes.
Understandably, the museum's recreation lacked reference to nocturnal rumpy-pumpy, opting for a more family-friendly overview. My daughter particularly loved this room, with its preposterous dummies and animated walls. It was a unique space in the museum. A little bit tacky — yes — but also a tiny bit magical.
6. People's City: the anachronistic Victorian streets
The Victorian walk at the museum needs no introduction. Most visitors would cite it as a highlight — a chance to peer into the shopfronts of yore, or wait endlessly for a pint in a 19th century boozer. What many visitors will have missed is this oddball anachronism. Look to the skies, for a full-scale 8-bit invasion is in progress.
This pair of mosaic space invaders were added to the street scene in 2016. They're the handiwork of street artist Invader, whose tiles can be found all over London (and other cities). To this day, I have no idea why the Museum of London agreed to the theme-busting decoration, but I'm very pleased they did.
7. World City: The naughty swearing
"Daddy, what does 'F*cking Britain' mean?" So might have asked my five-year-old daughter had fate, in the shape of my obscuring palm, not blocked her line of sight. When Tom Hunter's model of a Hackney street was first unveiled in 2010, I was convinced that this doctored political poster wouldn't last very long. How, in this age of sensitivity and fear of offence can the word "Fucking" be on blatant public display at child's-eye level? But last it has, and for 12 years. Fair play.
And it's not the only sweary corner of this gallery. Nearby, a motley collection of Playmobil figures protests at the impending Olympics. One of the more eye-catching placards warps the London 2012 logo into the word SHIT. To be fair, it's less shit than the actual logo.
I hereby challenge the future London Museum to sneak the words "wank", "cumdog" and "sweaty scruttocks" into its Tudor galleries.
8. The gift shop
With the galleries done, I must also raise a salute to the museum's excellent gift shop. I've spent a trove of pennies in here over the years (and earned a few, thanks to a book or four). Towards the end, it didn't quite have the range of literature that made it special, but this was still one of the top places to grab a London-themed gift.
9. The Rotunda, and "Well of Souls"
The main museum building itself will be mourned by few. Its begrimed tiles and workaday concrete have had their time — and you should see the corridors and offices behind the scenes. But I will miss the view at road level. The ebony rotunda is a reminder of the site's ancient past. Back in the day, this would have been the outer bulwark of the Roman fort. The seemingly impregnable bastion recalls that history, albeit as the centrepiece of a roundabout. Plans for the site couldn't be more opposed. Yes, they'll open up public realm and increase the accessibility, but another weird quirk of London will be lost.
If you can find your way into the rotunda (it's not always obvious) then this is the unique view that awaits. It's technically called Nettleton Court, but I've always thought of it as the Well of Souls. Why? You see that concrete cave? It leads to the museum's bone store. 20,000 skeletons rest within. I never did get to take a peek, but the Gentle Author has taken a tour of this mausoleum of research. Oh, and in case you're wondering about that stone monument to the right...
10. And finally... what of Dick Whittington and his cat?
I don't remember my first time at the Museum of London. It must have been some time in the late 90s. What I do recall is stumbling across this fellow, and his wandering cat, on one of my early visits. The pair act as two-dimensional heralds for the museum, guarding the lifts up from street level. The Whittington figure can also look kind of creepy on a rainy night, for anyone who can make the connection to a yellow anorak and red balloon.
Dick and pussy have been there as long as I can remember. But the lift and pedway they decorate do not appear to have a future. What will become of them when the museum site is redeveloped?
This is a direct appeal to the Museum. Please, please save those painted tiles and place them in your new venue. They're not pretty, they're not artistic, but I think they've made a big impression on many visitors over the years and have earned their place in posterity. Thank you. And thank you for everything. See you on the other side.