Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Monday, 31 May 2010


The prospect of yet another grey and gloomy Bank Holiday (pray, whom do we sue?) seemed the perfect incentive to have a look at the Museum of London's remodelled Galleries of Modern London.

It must be some years now that its displays on twentieth century London have been mostly packed away. The last few times I've been, it looked as though it had little or nothing to say about it, let alone about the twenty-first century. No doubt there has been a lot of curatorial debate about how to squeeze an ever-expanding story into the space (to judge by the credits listed in various places, there must have been quite a fundraising effort too). It felt even more squeezed with the crush of people attracted by the publicity for the re-opening (including, I noticed, our former, and wouldbe once again, Mayor).

The upper floor retains the chronological flow from prehistoric times to the Great Fire. Here there's a much quicker canter than there used to be through the Saxon, mediaeval and Tudor periods, and what was once a whole caseful of the Cheapside Hoard is now shrunken to a single necklace, pending a complete exhibition in 2012. The old favourite model panorama of the Great Fire is still there, but has been amplified by a film projected behind it, with other contemporary accounts added to the Pepys version.

The new galleries are downstairs, where "modern London" begins with the rebuilding of the 1670s onwards. Chronology is downplayed, the story being split into main thematic segments (Expanding City, People's City, World City) that take a broad period of time each. Major structural features (the Victorian street of salvaged shopfronts and interiors, the Selfridges lift, the 18th century prison cell) remain where they were, but within each main segment, there are themed sections (for example, Empire, War, Struggle) displayed through a kaleidoscope of vignettes, rather than an extended narrative.

Every inch of space is used, with old newspapers, posters and playbills all over the walls; detailed timelines are relegated to translucent window blinds showing significant events and personalities.

The need to make room for new material means that a lot of older material is skated over or barely mentioned. The suffragettes seem to get far more coverage than the labour struggles of the nineteenth century, the General Strike and the First World War seem barely to have happened, and a great deal seems to have been designed to give teachers something to work with, rather than to explain itself in context. There is an alcove papered all over with the Booth poverty map, and a Googlemaps-style interface to let you examine different parts of London in more detail. But the basic description of what it is, and what is was for, is on a very modest wall plaque that, on a busy day, was easily overlooked, leaving a visiting French couple completely baffled.

But even without much traditional explication, there is an exhausting amount of content to inspect - not just to gawp at in cases or on the walls, but to explore interactively.

Explanatory text and lots of labelled examples of individual items are often replaced by film - as in this case showing a model of the Skylon at the Festival of Britain in 1951, or the recreation of the 18th century pleasure garden, where some of the fantastical costumes of the period are framed with video of fops out on the pull, and nearly coming to blows with their white-painted ladies crying out the Georgian equivalent of "Leave 'im, 'e ain't worth it!". The frontage of a 1920s Lyons teashop has a lifesize video of a smiling nippy delivering the same scone over and over again, while outside the café tables give puzzled children the chance to learn the mysteries of the rotating dial on old telephones. A 1930s-costumed attendant by the Selfridges lift explains what's in the store and what it's like to work there.

Elsewhere, there are touch-screens to allow adults to persuade themselves they're not playing, but exploring information in more detail, while below the 1920s taxi, there's a very conceptual model of an underground railway at toddler height.

That, by the way, seems to be as much as is said about transport, nor is there much about housing, or the usual demonstrations of how the city has grown and what that meant for public services and government.

But there needed to be space made for all that's been happening in the last few decades. How odd to think that one's own lifetime is now museum material: clothes, posters and pamphlets from the 60s, 70s and 80s, early desk-top computers, the posters and leaflets of the "Less Passion from Less Protein" campaigner, the passionate debates about race, identity and diversity.

At last one catches sight of the café, and passing through some samples of London-inspired art and a special section for the star attraction (the Lord Mayor's coach, now surrounded by some - but somewhat limited - information on the City of London rather than, as I remember it, marooned in a corner) you come to a section on Londoners, with projected videos of a succession of people talking about their lives, and finally an interactive section asking for opinions on future London issues like housing, transport and so on. In the café, you're surrounded by a scrolling display of random statistics to inspire some "well, fancy that" responses while you recover, over a cup of tea:

No comments:

Post a Comment