The Museum of London - Tales of the City

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on February 28, 2009

In the heart of the City of London, the gleaming headquarters of bankers, lawyers and accountants hide the darker history of this city. The free Museum of London seeks to answer the questions of why London even exists in its present location, and how it evolved to form the sprawling metropolis that at one time governed an the largest empire the world has ever seen.

To be honest I was not aware that the Museum of London existed. The roll-call of great London museums includes the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the V&A… yet somehow the Museum of London is not counted among that elite coterie. Perhaps it is because it could be seen as parochial; whereas the aforementioned museums draw their collections from across the world, the Museum of London draw theirs from a region no more than thirty miles square.

This is a shame, because it is the very specificity that makes this museum interesting. The character of London tends to emerge here. Sadly not the whole character – the lower floor is currently being renovated for re-opening in 2010, and so the story of the city seems to abruptly end in 1666. But what I did see intrigued me enough to want to revisit in future and continue the story.

The first part of the tale of London’s growth starts with the first settlers in ‘London Before London’. The Thames was once a very different river, a mere tributary of the mighty Rhine, until the map of Europe altered. As selected skulls, horns and bones show, the Thames valley was populated by elephants, lions, rhinos and cave bears. Early settlements dotted the landscape. One lies underneath the runway at Heathrow airport as a diorama shows. One body found, that of the Shepperton Woman, has been reconstructed. Paleoforensic investigation reveals intriguing hints about her life story. For instance, a high level of lead in her teeth suggests she originated from Derbyshire. What brought her down here? As the iron age kicked in you can see decorated weaponry, elaborately fashioned and then thrown into the Thames as an offering. You can see a horned helmet and a reconstruction of the Battersea Shield that sits in the British Museum.

So settlements dotted the Thames valley when the Romans arrived, first under Julius Caesar, and then full invasion under Claudius. Pre-Roman names survive in the names ‘London’ and ‘Thames’. There is a large section showing the development of the Roman city. There are reconstructions of a street of shops, impressive hoards of glittering gold coins, evidence of religious practices and entertainment activities (including a leather ‘bikini’ worm by performers). There is also a lovely mosaic floor that is used to show how a wealthy family’s triclinium would look. Models show what we know the city would look like (including the largest basilica outside Italy). But with London developing layer upon layer over the original Roman settlement there is a lot that is not known. The information panels admit that it is believed that there would have been a theatre and circus, but we do not know where. Also, only one temple associated with a specific individual deity has been found. And oddly, rather than a god from the Roman pantheon such as Jupiter, Mercury or Minerva, that temple was dedicated to Mithras, an exotic eastern religion. The London temple of Mithras is now one of the best known.

As you wander the displays listening to the unobtrusive audio tape in the background (woodland noises in the ‘London Before London’ display, the splash of river traffic and the catcalls of traders and curses in Latin in the Roman London section) one thing becomes quite apparent: the curators have quite a playful sense of humour. A board highlighting the growth of ornamentation on weaponry in the Iron Age is punningly entitled ‘Designed to Impress’; a view over a remnant of the Roman and medieval city wall is headed ‘All Along The Watchtower’; best of all the (disappointingly small) panel detailing Boudicca’s revolt and razing of London is made to look charred with the graffiti tag ‘Romans Go Home’ (or ‘Romani eunt domo’ as I believe John Cleese’s centurion insisted in ‘The Life Of Brian’).

When the Romans did indeed go home London was abandoned. It lay empty and overgrown through the Dark Ages and only started to grow again in the 9th century. The Medieval London section introduces you to a booming city. Wonder at the model of St Paul’s Cathedral – not the domed Wren construction we know today, but a Gothic cathedral with a towering central steeple. After the destruction wrought by the Black Death in the 1360s (in which an entire third of the European population perished) a new era of wealth hit the city. You can see artefacts from the collections of the Medieval guilds that still play a role in the life of the City today. You can also see treasures confiscated from the church following Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

The displays from the next century are the weakest part of the collection to my eyes. The most important chapter in the city’s history is shown in more detail in a separate exhibition on the 1666 Great Fire of London. I was able to join a free guided tour of this area. Kim was a bubbly young guide, if struggling slightly with her microphone pack. She explains the internal conditions on the city in 1666, the outbreak of the fire (woken to attend, the Mayor of London disparagingly commented that "a woman could piss it out" and went back to bed), eye-witness accounts of the progress of the blaze (largely the diarist Samuel Pepys), and the aftermath where culprits were looked for. One disturbed French lad did confess and was executed, but the chief culprits were put down alternatively as Catholic saboteurs, or a punishment from God for the ‘wickednesse and gluttonie’ of Londoners. I feel we can safely discount the latter theory; after all there have been no major conflagrations since… You can also see designs for the rebuilding of the city along orderly lines and wide traffic-easing thoroughfares. As anyone who has ever visted London can tell you, none of these designs were followed.

I have to say, I found the Museum of London an interesting look into the history of what has never been one of my favourite cities. When the renovations of the lower floor are complete in 2010 I think it will be well worth another visit to take the story of this most storied of cities up to the present day.

Admission is free. The nearest tube stations are Barbican (Circle, Metropolitan and Hammersmith & City lins) to the north, and St Paul’s (Central line) to the south. The museum is located in a rather awful looking 1970s concrete traffic circle, accessed by escalators or lifts. If you are heading between the Museum & St Paul’s Cathedral check out a little opening to the west of the road that leads to Postman’s Park, and a late Victorian memorial to those who died saving others. Those who have seen the film of ‘Closer’ will remember Natalie Portman’s character Alice here.
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London, England, EC2Y 5HN
+44 (207) 814 5613

© LP 2000-2009