Museum of London review
The Museum of London tells the story of the city all the way back to the bones and stones of the prehistoric era. The only animals we have walking around Trafalgar Square these days are pigeons and squirrels, but back then we had a plain full of hippos and elephants. They've dug up monkey bones, lions, bison, bears... it was better than London Zoo!
When you visit as many museums as I do you will eventually become inured to the presence 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 flat 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.
Many of them are so impressive that 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.
London becomes a lot more interesting once the Italians arrive because you start to see hordes of silver coins, carved stone statues, blocks of inscribed concrete, colourful mosaics, long pointy amphoras, and of course plenty more bowls (bazillions of them). They’ve also built some intricate little models of Londinium’s original basilica, forum and wharves. I always curse Boudicca for burning down these buildings in 60 AD, because imagine how fantastic London would be if they were still standing now.
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.
There are lots of Viking axes and daggers in this section, plenty of medieval coins and stonework, and Henry VIII contributes a lot of religious icons by dissolving the monasteries -- surely the biggest vandal act in British history.
If you’re a big fan of broken bowls then you will love this section as well, because the Museum of London has got one of the best collections of broken crockery in the UK. I can see plenty of people poring over them and pointing at a snapped-off handle 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. 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 European trade. Have a guess what they’re displaying 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, plus plenty of old street maps (lots of people walk straight past them, but I love looking at old street maps), a big model of the Rose Theatre, a cabinet full of Civil War muskets and guns, and Oliver Cromwell’s death mask. When you reach Georgian London it’s all paintings and panoramas. There’s lots of glassware, silver clocks, teapots 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 kept locked away in her creaky corner cabinet – the one that you were never allowed to touch as a kid.
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. They’ve got a few 1920s dresses and a celebration of the Suffragettes, but if you’re hoping for some detail about the war then forget it… the Blitz is quickly dismissed with a gas mask, a tin of milk and powdered eggs, and a cabinet full of black and white newspaper photos. You can see some people sleeping in the subway when the Germans came to town (and pictures of the rubble-strewn streets after they left), but that’s about it.
After the war you just get a cabinet full of 1960s fashions, some psychedelic album covers and a couple of chunky early home computers from the 1980s. But everything seems to be much more about Britain by this point, rather than just the city of London itself, so it doesn’t interest me so much.
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 today -- they've taken it away for conservation work.
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