Frocks, an unexploded bomb, street riots, a bit of how's-your-father in the bushes of Vauxhall... I’m convinced that, after five years and £20 million of refurbishment, the lower galleries of the Museum of London (www.museumoflondon.org.uk) will finally put this oddly located, grim-walled attraction on the must-see list for visitors.
When I was being shown round earlier this week by curator Alex Werner, he paused beside the 1760 Blackett dolls’ house, an exhibit fondly remembered by countless previous visitors. He wanted to point out a little case of five, rather unremarkable dolls. Unremarkable, that is, until you realise they were handmade by future British empress, Queen Victoria.
This kind of small-scale, intimate new angle on the grand scope of history is precisely what so many Londoners prize in the Museum of London, but for time-poor tourists ‘the world’s largest urban history museum’ has often been squeezed off the itinerary by, oh I don't know, a British Museum collection that’s drawn from every major global civilisation? The feast of international artistic masterpieces at two Tates and the National Gallery? Those three vast Victorian neighbours in South Kensington: the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the revitalised V&A? (See my London overview.)
And the Museum of London building hardly clamours for attention:
Don’t be put off! A short walk north of St Paul’s tube station (see How to get around London), it surely deserves to be considered alongside those well-established highlights.
The five new Galleries of Modern London use more than 7,000 objects to take the history of the city from the Great Fire of 1666 (ably covered, along with prehistoric, Roman, medieval and Tudor London, upstairs).
The first signal of the curators' skill in harnessing new technology to the task of interpreting London’s history is in the entrance hall. The Sackler Hall café is surrounded by an ellipse that ceaselessly chatters random facts about London from the web - uncensored reality, as Alex pointed out, as some rather unpleasant facts about crime and sewage appeared. The Light Surgeons’ continually running film, which follows London through a day and a night, is a more aesthetic take on the same matter.
Many people will be drawn immediately to a room that reconstructs the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens - London’s pioneering 17th-century space for leisure of all kinds, refined and immoral. Contemporary music from Handel and Thomas Arne (composer of ‘Rule Britannia’) plays as projections drop you right in the middle of courting couples, feasting, acrobats and naughty liaisons in a notorious section of darkened trees.
The printing press is another eye-catching exhibit, spewing forth changing pages of historical ‘news’, interrupted by occasional ‘on the scene’ broadcasts as by contemporary reporters.
Among the gorgeous clothes on display - the Museum of London’s clothing collections are second only to the V&A - the splendid, unfeasibly broad-hipped Fanshawe dress, sewn down the road in Spitalfields in the 1750s, will probably share the headlines with the crazy Philip Treacy galleon hat in the Pleasure Gardens exhibit, but I also loved a pair of exquisite flappers’ minidresses.
These symbols of thoughtless upper-class decadence have been thoughtfully displayed, not only alongside the traditional hand-stitched ‘smother suit’ of the working-class Pearly King of Islington, but also in case where the story is told of how hard the barely paid seamstress had to work to finish the frivolous garments.
The museum’s many interactives are at once imaginative and revealing.
In Victorian times Charles Booth sent a team of investigators to painstakingly record the relative wealth of every house in London, putting the results on extraordinary colour-coded maps - yellow (‘Wealthy’) down to black (‘Semi-criminal’). In a side room here, wallpapered with sheets from Booth’s original, you can touch-navigate to the very street your hotel is on and discover precisely what that bit of London was like 100 years ago according to Booth’s map.
Too pious for you? Choose a profession for yourself in the ‘Changing London’ gallery to find out how little you would have earned in decades past - I didn’t do well as a baker, it must be admitted. Sit in classic ’20s cinema seats in what Alex called the ‘minima’ to watch Pathe newsreels. Or choose an interesting-looking face from the Hogarth etching on the ‘Life Chances’ touch-screen and zoom into their story.
The curators have, of course, retained the most popular of the previous exhibits. In addition to the Blackett dolls’ house, you can still walk through a street of Victorian shops. Sadly, though you can sit down at the thoroughly convincing beer pumps in the pub, no moustachioed ostler springs up to pull you a pint.
There’s an early motorised taxi cab, the sensational doors of a Selfridges lift and, in every gallery, entertainment for the children: handles to wind, dressing-up clothes, things to sniff and draw, little cubby holes to open up.
Pleasingly, the museum hasn’t backed away from London controversies. There’s plenty on the Brixton riots, immigration and fascism, as well as on the suffragette movement. The blandly titled ‘Roof finial, 1993’ is the last bit of a Victorian terraced house ploughed into the ground in east London by the arrival of the M11 link road - painted by the squatters who protested there, as the caption explains.
Oh, and there’s a swear word - look out, teachers! It was graffitied over a Tory election poster back in 1994 and faithfully reproduced by Tom Hunter at one end of his extraordinarily detailed model of a pair of ordinary London streets.
Two exhibits are especially moving.
The first is a cell from a debtors’ prison that was on Wellclose Square, near the Tower of London, in the 1750s. Dimly lit, you can make out for yourself the prisoners’ graffiti - names, a rhyme and, from those who couldn’t write, intricate drawings of houses.
The second is, just, within living memory. The little Blitz gallery is bare but has real visual impact, with an unexploded incendiary bomb suspended in a glass column as if falling from the roof. Yet it is the recorded memories and projected archive photos of survivors that really bite, matter-of-fact accounts of carnage that bring a sense of reality to more familiar, trite accounts of London’s fabled ‘Blitz Spirit’.
I understand Barbara Windsor and Michael Caine will attend the gala opening ceremony tomorrow evening, but this reborn section of the Museum of London is open to everyone from Friday 28 May (until 9pm). There are events all weekend too, including a free screening of The Long Good Friday on Sunday evening at 6pm.
For more information on where to stay while you're here and how to save some money, see my London Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in London pages and London insider tips.