DICKENS 200 Dickens and London, Museum of London (2012)
It's the big name exhibition in town, for one of the biggest names in literary London. A blockbuster roomful at the Museum of London, raking in the punters at eight quid a time, come to enjoy a collection of Dickensian memorabilia. Best plan in advance.
Come at the weekend and you might have to wait. Even if you do get a timed ticket, be warned that the maximum number of timed tickets sold in a particular slot is rather high, so it can get very crowded inside. I decided weekday afternoon was the best bet, and was still surprised by the numbers. A post-retirement audience mostly, I'd guess Radio 4-friendly, making the most of their City matinee. And yes, we enjoyed.
As a man who made his name through words, several of Dickens texts are on display here. Some are pen portraits of famous characters, printed out, and nothing you couldn't see on the internet. But some are very special, including four draft manuscripts on which Charles wrote some of his most famous works, complete with crossings out, scribbles and amendments. Alongside each is the final published work, for example the fog-bound opening paragraphs of Bleak House or the finished half of the Mystery of Edwin Drood. It seems amazing that anybody ever managed to translate his butchered scrawl into typeset print, or maybe it's too easy to forget how recently cut and paste has transformed the author's craft.
At the far end of the gallery is the desk on which Dickens used to write. This is normally hidden away in a private collection, but the Museum has wheedled it out and placed it on display for us all. Then there's an actual quill pen used by Dickens and, well, not actually as much Dickensiana as you might be expecting from a big name exhibition. The entire contents of Charles's house may have been scattered to the four winds after he died, but there's a limited amount of actual genuine "as used by"s to go round. Instead the Museum of London makes the most of its own broad collection by illustrating the era of society in which Dickens lived. The world of theatre which he loved so much (including a playbill featuring his mistress Ellen). The world of the poorhouse (whose social injustice inspired many a campaigning chapter). Panoramic pictures of the River Thames (on whose banks the young Charles once worked in a blacking factory). It's evocative stuff, and conjures up the atmosphere of Dickensian London brilliantly, but it's not the concentrated collection of writerly artefacts you might be expecting.
After a final mini-gallery exploring life and death, a modern film plays in a room near the exit. Don't miss it out - I added half as much again to the length of my visit by popping in to watch. The film's called The Houseless Shadow, and was inspired by an essay entitled Night Walks which Dickens wrote during a week-long period of insomnia. His words accompany shots of overnight 21st century London, as its City streets empty and the river flows unwatched. The twenty minute feature is entirely in the right spirit for the man, and for the exhibition, and a highly original artistic touch. You have until 10th June to pay a visit, by which time surely the crowds will have died down. This coming week, however, expect Dickens' popularity to remain undimmed.
DICKENS 200 A Tale Of One City, Portsmouth Museum (2012)
And while you're in Portsmouth, assuming you are, do pop into the City Museum. It's the big school-like building near the University, where their just-opened Dickens exhibition takes up about half of the ground floor. It reminded me a bit of the Museum of London's exhibition, in that it's mostly a collection of local Victoriana with a few genuine Dickensian artefacts thrown in. Here the special curios are a manuscript of Nicholas Nickleby (pictured), and the cut glass inkwell that was on Charles' desk the day he died. Every museum's got its own bit of that death scene, it seems. And at the other end of the building, as a bonus treat, you'll find a two-room display celebrating the life and works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He wasn't born in Portsmouth but moved here when starting as a GP, and it was during his decade-long practice that he wrote the very first Sherlock Holmes story. With a pair of greats like these, Portsmouth is a city punching above its literary weight.