It’s eerie is walking though the streets to get to the Museum of London at the weekend. Whatever it’s like during the week, on a Sunday morning it’s practically empty with just the sound of ancient church bells on the wind to accompany the slog up from the river.
The Museum of London, you see, is very appropriately situated in the middle of the City of London. Right next to one of the last few pieces of the original wall marking what for a long time were its borders. If that doesn’t bring home to you just how large the place is now, then the very long bus journey from Saaf West Laandaan will. Well, that and the lengthy monologue about the history of agriculture (the whole history of agriculture. Yes, that’s right, *all* of it) Mama had entertained us with on the way.
Did I mention how long the ride was?
Quite why Mama thought farming methods were a good preparation for this museum I am not sure because, apart from the section about prehistoric London when the mammoths and sabre tooth tigers ruled, the history of London is, well, really not terribly rural.
Which is fine by us. We are second generation urbanites and capital city snobs if you ignore Mama’s contributiton our gene pool, which in this case we really really do.
The layout of the museum is chronological – you start at the beginning and progress through sections devoted to particular periods, like Roman times, medieval London, early modern, Victorian, and the sixties and so on, with occasional side forays in the Big London Events like the plague, the great fire and the world wars.
Each of these sections has its own feel and focuses on a different aspect of London life – whatever seems to have been in the ascendancy at the time (kings, commerce, dirt, religion, commerce, ruling the WORLD baby, commerce, commerce, commerce, fashion and the arts) – and is almost like a mini museum within a museum.
This constant rebooting keeps us interested, as does the opportunities for interaction which are not a main focus but present in every period and very varied from place to place from dressing up, to multimedia button pushing, cinematic experiences and interractive dioramas. Our favourites are the twisty luminous blue projection of the Thames where you can catch different symbols and turn them into words showcasing difficult town planning questions (at which point we lose interest a bit), and the one where you can attempt to purge the fetid Thames waters of poo (which doesn’t ever get old).
Some other highlights for us. The Roman area has had some revamping done by a group of teenagers, and is full of films bringing things like gladiatorial matches into the 20th Century, although Mama enjoyed looking into the cupboards and hearing about Roman cuisine best.
The Victorian section is organised as a lifesized mock up of streets, with shops you can look into and sometimes enter and sometimes even TOUCH THE THINGS.
Not the toy shop though, which is a shame because we insisted on standing there with our noses pressed against the window longingly. But Mama says this is almost certainly what our family would have been doing at that time too, and so approved, from a historically accurate perspective. Good job, the Museum of London for an authentic Victorian childhood experience.
To prevent us getting too frustrated though, there is an area later where we can have a hands on play around with the sorts of toys and watch the sorts of TV shows that Mama and Granny and Grandad would remember. It is surprising, Mama thinks, that after hours and hours of all the shows that Cbeebies can offer to say nothing of our tablets, how popular Bill, Ben and the Weed are with us.
Mama’s favourite bit is the 18th Century Vauxhall pleasure gardens experience. You can stroll round, admiring the large-skirted high-haired mannequins and watching the little costumed playlettes projected on the walls around you. What she particularly likes is that the skits are not showing wildly dramatic narrative arcs but just designed to make you feel as though you are evesdropping on other visitors to the park as you yourself stroll around. We have to drag her out, usually.
This pales into comparison with the lifesize models of horses unencumbered by any kind of glass or rope barrier though. They are pulling some kind of fancy gold coach but this is not as interesting as being able to get up close and personal with my favourite animal, safe in the knowledge that if I run under their tummies, they will not kick or bite me.
The Museum of London is surprisingly good value for horse spotters, actually. Or at least surprising for someone who hasn’t taken the history of trying to slog your way around the city into account. This is one of Mama’s obsessions, of course. I think we’d better move on before she launches into the history of transport with a side rant about great traffic jams she has endured in the capital.
And what better place to move on to than the café? Which is conveniently situated about two thirds of the way round in a nice large space with plenty of seating and excellent access to toilets and as a result almost impossible not to stop at (well played again the Museum of London).
It’s more of a cake, coffee and cocoa stop than a place for anything more substantial, but there is another one for that near the entrance, and a few, although not many, somewhat less pricy hot food emporiums in the walkways around. If you have bought sandwiches and womanfully resisted the call of the café, it should be possible to use what is otherwise the schools’ lunch room, as long as there aren’t any schools visiting that day of course.
All in all, the Museum of London is one of London’s fullest and most interesting museums for Mama, the history graduate, and luckily well set up for welcoming young people enthusiastically through its doors as well. It’s a tad off the tourist route but also close enough to places like St Paul’s, the Monument and the Tower of London that us Londoners who live in the modern suburbs could find out about our city’s older history and then go for a wander around it all in one day.
And the Museum of London is also an excellent place to take us kids on a rainy day.
This is not because the exhibits themselves are all undercover – although they are – or because the museum is large, and packed with interesting things which will keep us occupied for hours – although it is – but because it is part of the Barbican complex.
What this means is that you get an extensive network of covered walkways extending out around the museum which, once you have finished with history, you can canter joyfully around in relative comfort no matter how much water is falling out of the skies.
Some people might object to the brutalist concrete tower block scenery that forms the backdrop to this, but Mama’s secret ambition is to own a flat in this striking development, so she minds not one bit. She is from the New Town of Stevenage after all. This is the height of beauty for her. And she enjoys the contrast between the architecture here and the much older aesthetic we wandered past on our way in.
You can, of course, also visit the Barbican centre itself. As`well as whatever exhibitions they have on, Mama recommends the toilets on the first floor around lunch time. For some reason you can hear an orchestra practising really really well in there.
So you should visit, especially if you live anwhere in Britain. You only exist to support life in the capital, after all, so you probably should know more about it.
Address: 150 London Wall, London, EC2Y 5HN
Opening: Monday to Sunday 10am to 6pm.
Admission: Free, although some special exhibitions will have an extra fee.
By tube: Barbican (Hammersmith and City, Bakerloo and Circle lines) or St Paul’s (Central line)
By train: Liverpool Street or Farringdon (also on the Hammersmith and City, Bakerloo and Circle lines) or the City Thameslink.
By bus: Routes 4, 8, 25, 56, 100, 172, 242, 521. The museum is on the London Wall at the junction with Aldersgate Street.
By car: If you are tired of London, trying to travel around it by car will not improve matters, and neither will trying to find a parking space you can afford. Or indeed any parking space. As Dr Johnson might have said.