Museum of London review
The Museum of London spans a few thousand years of the city's history, from dinos and rhinos to cider winos sitting on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral... that's how far we've come in a few thousand years.
The only animals we have now are pigeons and squirrels, but back in the distant days we had a plain full of hippos and elephants. They've dug up monkey bones, lions, bison, bears... it was better than London Zoo. The first room is full of these bones, plus stones, rocks, pots and bits of flints, and about three bazillion pottery bowls.
When you visit as many museums as I do you will eventually become bored of bowls. You can trust me on this, because London's museums are absolutely full of them. You never see any cups or mugs or dinner plates on display -- it's always bowls. And this is what I don't understand: surely it was easier to make a plate? When Stone Age man was sitting in his cave with his steak of Stegosaurus, surely it made more sense to stick it on a plate? So why are there no plates on display? It's always bowls! For five thousand years we struggled along with bowls until we realised you could stick a steak on a plate.
But I must admit that some of them are quite impressive, and it's hard to believe they're really 5,000 years old. They obviously built things to last in those days. They knew how to make a bowl in the Bronze Age -- not like now. Nowadays we're lucky if it survives two trips to the dishwasher, but back then they were guaranteed to last for five thousand years.
Things start to get a lot more interesting when the Italians arrive. They've got pocketfuls of Roman coins, acres of floor tiles, blocks of inscribed concrete, those long pointy amphora things (surely the daftest shape for a jug ever invented?), and lots more bowls (bazillions of them). They've got some nice models of the forum and basilica as well, some statues from the Temple of Mithras, and a couple of mock-ups of a Roman living room. Bones, bowls and concrete -- that is how I would sum up the Roman section.
When you get to 600 BC you start to see a few place names that we still use today. Old Old St. Paul's goes up. (I don't mean the Norman one -- that's Old St. Paul's. I mean Old Old St. Paul's.) People think that Wren's St. Paul's is old, but that went up 1,000 years after the original.
They've got lots of Viking axes and daggers in this section (and plenty more bowls, of course). Lots of medieval coins and carved stonework. Lots of religious icons. Lots of bowls.
You're either going to enjoy looking at this stuff or you're not. I can see plenty of people poring over the cabinets and pointing at a rusty old axe like it's the greatest treasure on earth, but I don't understand the attraction myself. I'd much rather read some placards about the events and battles and disasters, but there's very little of that. I've just found a cabinet about the Black Death, for example, and what have they got displayed in it? More bowls. I kid you not... they're discussing how hygiene and medicine affected the outbreak, and doing it through a series of bowls. Now I've found a cabinet about trade. Have a guess what they've got in it... more bowls! But this time they're all decorated Dutch bowls, French bowls and German bowls.
Thank God for the invention of the printing press... because that's when history finally moves on from bowls and starts using books and pictures instead. Henry VIII contributes a lot of religious icons to this section by dissolving the monasteries (surely the biggest vandal act in British history). And then you hit a rich vein of stuff from Shakespeare to Samuel Pepys. This is the pinnacle of our city's history: this hundred year stretch between Elizabeth and the Restoration.
You get some great paintings of the London skyline here, plenty of old street maps (boring for most people, but for some strange reason I love them), a big model of the Rose Theatre, a cabinet full of Civil War muskets and guns, Oliver Cromwell's death mask... and no more bowls!
When you get to Georgian London it's all paintings and panoramas. There are lots of silver clocks, teapots, glassware and fine bone china. It's the same sort of stuff that crops up on the Antiques Roadshow every Sunday -- dusty grandma stuff. The kind of knick-knacks she keeps hidden in her corner cabinet -- the one that you're never allowed to touch.
The spookiest exhibit is a darkened pleasure garden with dandies decked out in feathers and flowery dresses. They're standing there chatting through the speakers, and every now and then an explosion of fireworks drowns out the birdsong. It's hard to describe it... it looks like a dream you don't want to have.
After that you can have a wander around some full-size Victorian streets with about fifteen shopfronts in them. You can peer into the pub, the clothes shop, toy shop, chemist, grocer, barber, post office... it's a bit like Diagon's Alley in Harry Potter, I suppose, but without the Magic Wand Shop.
Once you make it past the Victorians it all seems a bit rushed, because the last century is covered in just a couple of rooms. They've got a few 1920s dresses (straight out of Downton Abbey), a section on the Suffragettes, and a couple of old cars. If you're hoping for some information about the war then forget it... it's just a gas mask and a cabinet full of black and white photos. The Blitz is dismissed in a few posters and tins of milk and powdered eggs. After the war you just get some album covers, a moped, some early home computers, and a cabinet full of 1960s fashions.
The final room is very easy to miss because you'll get distracted by the cafe, but keep your eyes open for the Lord Mayor's golden coach. It looks like the Queen's Coronation coach. I would have shown you a photo of it but unfortunately it's disappeared -- they've taken it away for conservation work.
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