Fire! Fire! Great Fire of London exhibition – Museum of London Barbican
The Museum of London is the largest museum in the world devoted to a single city.
The exhibition begins in the London Before London gallery, which tells the history of the city before it was even there, when the population probably numbered under fifty.
It explores some of the early dwellings and archaeological finds that have discovered along the Thames, with over 300 offerings, bronze tools and iron swords that were thrown in the river to please the gods.
The second gallery covers the history of Roman Londinium, which grew up around 50 AD as a means to link their capital Colchester with the rest of the country.
You can see lots of Roman finds like silver coins and tablets, lots of pottery and wine amphora, and a 4th-century coffin of a young Roman lady.
Pride of place goes to the Temple of Mithras, which was dug up in Walbrook and moved to the Museum of London.
This gallery spans the years 4 AD to 1500 – a stretch of time that covers the Viking raids, the Norman Conquest, the Black Death, and the medieval wars with Scotland.
London was a thriving city by this time, with the earliest versions of Westminster Abbey, Old St. Paul’s and Old London Bridge.
The Tudor and Stuart gallery covers a rich period of history from Henry VIII to the Great Fire of London in 1666.
You will see the devastation wrought by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the religious terror inflicted by Bloody Mary, and Charles I’s war with Parliament in the English Civil War.
You will see some early pictures of the London skyline, some early London street maps, and a reconstruction of the Rose Theatre (a contemporary of William Shakespeare’s Globe).
The Great Fire of London exhibition includes a few of the burnt remains that have been dug up around Pudding Lane, and you can see how London rose from the ashes with some of the original maps and documents of the damage, and Christopher Wren’s ambitious rebuilding plans.
The 17th and early 18th-century saw London blossom into a centre of scientific learning.
You can read about the Guilds and Corporation in the City of London, and see the Lord Mayor’s coach from 1757. This gilded trap is covered in carvings and painted panels by the Florentine artist Cipriani, and is still used every year in the Lord Mayor’s Parade.
The World City gallery covers the pre-war years, from Queen Victoria and the Suffragettes, right up through World Wars I and II.
You can walk down a full-sized Victorian street, complete with shop fronts and lamplights, and see how The Blitz destroyed large parts of London, before being rebuilt in the post-war years.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
The Museum of London is probably my favourite museum in London, but of course I am a huge fan of London. It’s basically just a load of posters, photos, bones and bricks, but the more you know about the city the better it becomes. If just you’re here as a tourist then it might not do much.
It begins with all the prehistoric stuff. I always skip straight past this room because it’s just bones and stones. They’ve got a lot of arrow heads as well, and axeheads, lots of bits of flint (boring stuff). The most interesting display is probably the tusks and skulls of the hippos and elephants who used to roam around Trafalgar Square 200,000 years ago.
It starts getting better when you reach the Roman exhibits. You can see intricate little models of the basilica, forum and Roman wharves, and it’s hard to believe it was real. It almost looks like Rome! I always curse Boudicca for burning it down, because imagine how fantastic it would be if we still had all this stuff still standing.
You can see lots of busted statues, pots and blocks of concrete they’ve dug up from, lots of coins and jewellery, and some big wooden timbers and mosaics, which are definitely worth a look. Note: don’t forget to look out of the window at this point, because you can see the remains of London’s Roman wall downstairs in the street.
Then you move onto the Medieval era, and a gallery about the Tudors and Stuarts, which includes a lot of religious treasures looted from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. There are plenty more cups and plates and busted statues and stones, and a rather gruesome movie about the Black Death.
They have some interesting information about William Shakespeare, including a model of the original Rose Theatre. They’s also got some great paintings of the London skyline and some copper plates from the Copperplate Map.
They’ve got a nice little exhibition on the Great Fire of London here (albeit very small), where you can see some of the famous fire paintings, and the burnt timbers and bricks that they’ve dug up from the City.
Then comes all the Georgian stuff. My favourite display in this section is an original cell door from Newgate Prison. Have a close look at that wooden wall with all the prisoners’ scribblings scratched into it… that’s a proper punishment, being locked inside there.
Check out their spooky pleasure garden… it’s practically pitch black inside and full of Georgian ladies and dandified fellas, all dressed up and having a chat. A bit of birdsong and a few Handel tunes flit through the trees and it’s all very pleasant and strange, and weird and peaceful at the same time.
I love their Victorian street. They built about fifteen full-size shopfronts that you can walk around, with the sounds of the street pumped in through the speakers. The windows are filled with Victorian goods: toys and cards, fags and tobacco, biscuits and crackers, powders and snuff, top hats and tails, and even a little post office, pub and public urinal!
Then you move onto the pre-war and post-war years. There’s a big display about women’s suffrage, with some gas masks, ration cards and posters from the war years. Then you just get a few odds and sods like a red telephone box, a miniskirts, and some early home computers from the 1980s. It’s a lot more about Britain by this point, though, rather than the city of London, so it doesn’t interest me so much.
> Read Craig’s latest review of the Museum of London “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… continued.”
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You can learn more about London’s history at the Museum of London in Docklands. You can see lots of paintings and the remains of London’s Roman amphitheatre in the Guildhall Art Gallery. There are more Roman remains at All Hallows by the Tower and Billingsgate Roman House and Baths. The Jewel Tower has a very small exhibition about London.
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