diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 02, 2010

For the last four years, the Museum of London has stopped short. Immediately after the Great Fire, precisely where the ramp to downstairs begins, a historical dead end. Visitors have been denied the opportunity to discover what followed the conflagration, from Wren's rebuilding right up to Boris's mayoralty, while an entire floor has been refurbished. But last weekend the basement reopened following the £20m refit, and the timeline of the capital is now pretty much complete. So what's new?

Expanding CityThere are three downstairs galleries altogether, each showcasing an increasingly narrow period of time, and kicking off with the Expanding City. London grew through trade, and hundreds of Georgian artefacts are on show to get that point across. Clocks and shoes and extra-wide dresses for a start, plus tables of crockery beneath glass panels that you can walk across the top of. Some of the alcoves are dimly lit, which makes trying to match the objects to their pictorial labels quite hard. But one alcove is meant to be dark - an original wooden cell saved from from Wellclose Square Gaol on which the scratchings of prisoners are all too easily seen. Rather more upbeat is a large-scale recreation of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. This is essentially an excuse for the Museum to show off a selection of their more outrageous period costumes, accompanied by a couple of amusing projected vignettes which greatly add to the playful atmosphere.

Next up, roundabout 1850ish, London as a People's City. It's good to see that the old maze of Victorian shops has survived the refit, but most of the other exhibits appear new. The original Selfridges lift (wow) is a reminder of the more affluent side of town, but it's London's poor who get a bigger allocation of space. The Aldgate water pump takes centre stage in a peculiar interactive exhibit inviting visitors to place their hand in virtual sewage to see what they can find. Nothing pleasant, obviously. There's also a mini-room dedicated to Charles Booth's poverty map of London, again interactive, although it's probably quicker to try to find your home street on the map printed on the wall instead. The electronic stuff's very clever, throughout, but frustratingly unresponsive at times.

After a hotchpotch of fairly eclectic assemblages, it's then time to explore a couple of themes in greater detail, The Suffragettes earn a substantial portion of display space, as does the Second (but not the First) World War. There's a particularly good audio-visual presentation of eyewitnesses' wartime reminiscences, should you have the patience to sit through it in its entirety, and an even better 'cinema' presentation of old newsreel and cinefilm footage. The flickering black and white and images are an eye-opener for visiting children, as are the old coins inlaid into the table outside a Lyon's teashop to help explain how much the one shilling and sixpence luncheon menu cost. The new galleries aren't just a collection objects in glass cases, not by a long chalk.

Passion ProteinsAnd then up to date, from the Festival of Britain onwards, in the World City section. Each decade is represented by a collection of cultural icons, plus a shoe, which seems fair. Stanley Green's "8 Passion Proteins" placard earns a prominent position, as those of us who frequented Oxford Street before 1993 will remember. So too does a scale model of an entire threatened Hackney Street, and an old Apple computer, and (possibly) the genuine Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben. The London connection is sometimes a little tenuous, with location-free exhibits that'd be just as at home in a museum in Bristol or Carlisle, but 90% of the on-show items here are appropriately local.

Lord Mayor's State CoachAfter a room devoted to interactive issue-based voting, the final small gallery has been assembled by folk from the City. It's a bit dull, to be honest, with the exception of the attention-grabbing Lord Mayor's State Coach glinting in the centre. And then there's just the café to go, because there has to be a café, it's the law. This one's both understated and futuristic, with a swathe of London-related statistics flashing away on an electric curve overhead. The place is busy already, and ought to do a roaring trade with people who can't walk round a museum without stopping for a coffee and go on, yes, a premium sandwich and a slice of cake.

Two hours the gallery extension took me, and that's without dawdling in the pre-1666 bit upstairs. I felt like the museum had left a whole heap of history out, but then London's complete story would take several complete buildings to fill, and then some. The Museum in Docklands fills some of the gap, but these new galleries are damned impressive all the same. And well worth the wait.

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