Galleries of Modern London, Museum of London - Museums Association

Galleries of Modern London, Museum of London

Mark Suggitt is impressed by the Museum of London's approach to telling the complex story of the capital during the past 350 years
Mark Suggitt
The Museum of London is not an easy building to play with. Forced to snake around Ironmongers’ Hall, its linear route and chronological displays made a virtue out of a difficult site. Those original displays aged well, but stopped at about 1950.

Some changes were made along the way; gallery makeovers, a new cafe or two, and, most recently, a new entrance.

Today, the results of a successful lottery bid and an accompanying funding campaign sees the whole lower floor redesigned to tell the story of London from the Great Fire in 1666 to today.

There is also a small addition to the original building, a refurbished learning centre and lecture theatre and some significant internal remodelling. Yours for a mere £20.5m.

Coming down from the upper floor, visitors enter the Sackler Hall, which feels like a new space. There are tables and chairs, a coffee shop, and booths to view the museum’s collections online.

Above all this floats LDN24, an artwork by the Light Surgeons. This 48-metre-long elliptical chandelier screen features thousands of LEDs illuminating information from more than 35 real-time feeds.

In the middle is a large-screen film of everyday London life, surrounded by all sorts of capital information, from the FTSE to the percentage of Londoners in work. LDN24 is sleek, informative and fun.

The hall has the feel of a smart airport departure lounge, delivering a hub to the museum and reinforcing the fact that London is like nowhere else in Britain.

Tripartite structure

In the galleries the chronological approach has been retained, which is sensible as it fits with the upper floor and audience research confirmed that it was popular.

The galleries are in three zones; Expanding City looks at London’s growth as a capital and a trade centre after the Great Fire; People’s City covers the massive growth from the 1850s to the 1940s; and World City examines postwar and modern London, and its role as a cosmopolitan, creative and capitalist hub.

The introduction clearly states that there are two sub-themes underpinning the main ones, London and the World, and People and Change. The curators wanted to place the city in an international context and explain how people changed London and the city changed them.

The in-house design team have used the same spaces as before. The decision not to expand into the Garden Court (it would have been hugely expensive) means that a lot has to be packed into tight spaces and there are some inevitable flow problems. You have to double back in two areas and the final section has two possible exits.

The galleries are full of pertinent objects and images. Labelling is clear, with good introductions and short captions carrying the story along briskly.

There are imaginative touches such as underfloor cases, printed flooring and papers flying from a printing press. A lot of time and money has gone into well-designed and informative tabletop projected interactives.

Highlights are Capital Concerns, an interactive model of the river Thames that asks visitors about the challenges London faces, and a digitised version of the Poverty Map that Charles Booth created in 1887-89.

London’s costumes

The Museum of London has one of the UK’s great urban collections and is more than up to the task of consistently illustrating a lengthy chronology. The redesign has given 25 per cent more space and houses more than 7,000 objects, from the small and personal to an art-deco lift from Oxford Street department store Selfridges.

The display of clothes and artworks are integrated throughout, from the Spitalfields silk Fanshawe dress of 1752 to Alexander McQueen’s take on pearly queens in 2002.

Good documentation allows personal details about the wearers to be told. Paintings and prints are used to good effect, including a new commission by the Singh Twins. And it’s great to see a permanent display of the Ghetto, a sculptural recreation of squatted Hackney terraced houses by photographer Tom Hunter.

The galleries blend the personal with great public events. Two timelines follow the displays, one placing London in the context of world events and a smaller one that allows sponsors to purchase a year of their choice.

Above are large blinds featuring quotes from historical commentators such as architect Christopher Wren, author Samuel Johnson and social reformer Elizabeth Fry.

The Expanding City displays a range of goods made in London and charts its rise with that of the Empire and its trade in tea, sugar, tobacco and slaves.

Its section on Life Chances clearly illustrates the hardships to be found alongside luxury. People’s City has some excellent film clips and positions West End luxury against poverty in the East End.

World City charts the change from a huge manufacturing centre to one based on services and international finance, illustrated by the gates of the Firestone factory, a 1928 art-deco building demolished in 1980. London lost more than 750,000 manufacturing jobs from 1961 to 1980.

Political activity features throughout the galleries, with displays on the suffragettes, migration, alternative London, riots and protest.

Real people and voices appear in the installation Changing Views, Changing Values and the final large touch-table interactive addresses current concerns such as traffic, green issues and inequality.

The galleries also have changes of mood and atmosphere. An evocation of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens features a range of 18th-century clothes alongside a projected playlet that explores the social mores of the time, alluding to class and the naughtiness that took place along the “dark walks”.

More successful and genuinely moving is the section on the Blitz. Photographs of individuals are projected onto black walls that surround an earthbound bomb. Oral testimony plays over music, which adds a feeling of dread.

In People’s City, the original Victorian Walk has been retained. This was partly to save money, but also because it was a popular part of the old displays. Never intended as a full recreation and spanning a number of decades it needs to be contextualised into the overall narrative.

The galleries lead back into the Sackler Hall and Inspiring London, a temporary exhibition space to showcase current artistic and creative industry issues. This is a smart move as it allows the galleries to always end with something truly contemporary.

From there is a left turn into the gallery on the City. This small extension houses the lord mayor’s coach, which will be seen at street level from London Wall. It’s a disappointment and says little about the history of the City itself.

So much more could have been told about places such as Smithfield, the Barbican and Golden Lane, not to mention the impact of the bankers.

Everyone has their own view of London and what should represent it, so deciding what stories could and should be told cannot have been easy. The selected bias feels right and the correct choices have been made to tell a human story.

The new galleries are crowded, creative, busy, serious, occasionally frustrating and frivolous – not unlike the place they portray.

Mark Suggitt is a cultural consultant

Image: Art Deco lift, 1928, from Selfridges department store; now on display in the Peoples' City gallery

Project data

Cost £20.5m
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund £11.5m, Department for Culture, Media and Sport £1m, City of London £1m, BT group: £250,000, DCMS/Wolfson Foundation Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund: £160,000, Fidelity UK Foundation £100,000, London Development Agency £50,000
Exhibition design in-house
Architect Wilkinson Eyre Architects
Exhibition construction Fraser Randall Productions
Building construction R Durtnell & Sons
Structural engineer Ramboll UK
Building services engineer SMV Consulting Engineers
Sackler Hall designer Furneaux Stewart Design
Set works Scena Projects
Showcases Meyvaert Glass Engineering
Audiovisual software Newangle, ISO Design, Elbow Productions
Audiovisual hardware Electrosonic
Graphic production Leach Colour
Mechanical interactives Paragon Creative

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