on April 22, 2008
I didn’t know about this museum until a friend raved about it before I first visited London in 2001. Now, I wouldn’t skip it. After a half-day exploring a terrific exhibit about Roman London, as well as the permanent collection, it was high on the list of places we wanted to take our kids on a return trip. It’s a great introduction to London, and although the lowest level (from the Great Fire of 1666 to the present) is closed through 2009, there’s still plenty to see.The Museum is directly north of St Paul’s, a 10-minute walk up Aldersgate. We left the Cathedral and circled around it to the north along Paternoster Row, stopping to admire the recently relocated Temple Bar. After lunch at Pizza Express, we headed west back to the Museum, enjoying one of several (but limited) periods of bright sun we had that week, stopping to admire the remain of the Roman Wall just east of the Museum. The Museum uses the foyer for a series of short-lived, topical exhibitions. “Weather Permitting: London’s Changing Climate” was playing in that space during our visit, which looked at the variety of weather-induced events, average temperatures, and human effects on London’s weather and air quality over time. Famous floods of the Thames, length rainstorms, and long-lasting impenetrable fogs are all highlighted.After a brief orientation from one of the helpful staff, we headed into the Museum, each going our separate ways. Just to the right of the entrance, “London Before London” used artifacts, animation, and maps to look at the series of prehistoric cultures that occupied London and southern England before the Romans came. These cultures go back surprisingly far, and the archaeological evidence supporting those claims is nicely laid out. I hadn’t realized the extent to which ice ages and their corresponding impact on sea levels changed both the coastline of England, and the course of the Thames. Go back far enough, and England is physically part of Europe!“London’s Burning” is the temporary exhibit in the center of the first floor. Beyond it’s nod to The Clash, it brings home the utter disaster that befell the city in 1666, destroying the home and livelihoods of 100,000 people. The exhibit combines the recollections of Pepys and others, paintings of the disaster, relics discovered in excavations, and hands-on displays aimed at children. It tackles the rumors and lies told about the fire (such as, ‘it was ordered by the Pope’), and the city’s recovery from the disaster—which, not surprisingly, took years. I’d never really thought about what happened to the residents in post-fire period. Evidently, large and raucous tent cities developed on the fringes of the area. I kept thinking of post-Katrina New Orleans all through the exhibit, and wondering if 17th century London didn’t recover faster.Only the first floor was open, and even less of that than promised. In addition to the post-fire London exhibits closure, the post-Tudor section of the first floor was also closed that day. The remaining galleries include extensive sections on Roman London, some of which I remembered from the ‘High Street Londinium’ exhibit that was there on my first. The ‘Medieval London’ galleries end in 1558, and that’s where my two-hour tour of London’s history ended also, as workmen had sealed off the last section.The gift shop is one of the best in the city, with a great combination of books, posters and cards related to London and history, as well as fun items and above average souvenirs. Two of my kids found London-map-embossed bags and wallets here, which prompted an admiring comment from a bus driver the next day.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009