diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 27, 2007

  the definitive DG guide to London's sights-worth-seeing
  Part 20: London Transport Museum

Location: Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB [map]
Open: 10am - 6pm (late opening until 9pm on Fridays)
Admission: £8.00 (under 16s free)
5-word summary: looking back at getting around
Website: http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk
Time to set aside: at least a couple of hours

Saturday's queues to enter the LT MuseumAfter a couple of years of shutness and renovation, London's Transport Museum finally reopened to the public last Thursday. You should have seen the queues at the weekend. I did, so I went back yesterday after work instead.

It costs eight quid to get in (even if it's dark and closing time is imminent), and another fiver for the guide book (which is packed with sufficient detail and photos to be worth buying). The first thing you'll see when you enter is a huge glowing wall bedecked with interlocking metro maps of the world photos. Don't look too closely, it's geographically irrelevant, and serves only to blocks out the displays behind from the eyes of unpaid members of the public. Head up the ramp (it's not signposted, but head up the ramp) and wait for the lift to the second floor. Enter 2007, exit 1800.

Getting around 19th century London wasn't easy. There was a river, and there were sedan chairs, and there were also rickety vehicles pulled by horses. Highlights on the top floor include a replica of the very first horse-drawn bus carriage (it ran five times a day from Paddington to Bank) and a horse-drawn double decker omnibus (complete with fake dollops of manure). There are several informative panels to read and models to look at, as well as "twirly things" for kids to fiddle with (because they're not interested in proper information, obviously). While you're up here, take time to enjoy the view looking down over the rest of the museum. This used to be the Covent Garden Flower Market, you know, and the glass and ironwork are really rather splendid photos. And then descend the (vertigo-inducing) staircase to the Metropolitan mezzanine.

The museum has a bit of a Metro-land fetish, and rightly so. This floor includes a model showing how the first cut-and-cover lines were excavated, and a great big steam locomotive that used to run out of Baker Street, and also a gorgeous wooden carriage full of suburban ladies and stacked luggage. Go sit inside, you know you want to. The view inside the adjacent District line carriage is rather scarier photos. I don't know where the curator finds his mannequins, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was a 1970s department store.

swirling roundelsAnd now down to the ground floor photos. Do try to follow the arrows, although it gets increasingly difficult to work out which route you're supposed to be following as your journey progresses. Now we're into the "underground" section of the tour, with "proper physics" exhibits on tunnel digging and escalators, plus a grim windowless carriage from the pioneering City & South London Railway. Take a seat inside and you'll never complain about your morning commute again. Devotees of London Underground style will be delighted by a gallery given over to countless examples of classic design. The museum's a little light on proper "artefacts" elsewhere, and here at least are lovely leaflets and station models and roundels and, of course, Harry Beck's iconic tube map. Do stay for a while and watch a succession of swirling illuminated displays projected onto the floor photos. And remember, all 5000 posters are available to buy in the shop (and online).

There's one last tube carriage to enter, this time from 1938 Northern line stock, with one end given over to a projected film of appropriately costumed travellers from decades past. Ooh look, that passenger's got a mohican and a Union Jack t-shirt - it must be the 1970s. If the queues are short enough you might prefer to try driving a tube simulator (a proper real tube simulator, not your usual museum cop-out button-push) but don't stay in there for too long because the rest of us want a go, thanks. And I bet you'll enjoy a mesmeric animated version of the London tube map, showing the network evolving year by year from 1863 to the present day photos.

inside the London Transport MuseumOK, enough of trains, bring on the buses. Not very many buses, admittedly - if they'd really tried there'd have been room to cram another half dozen onto the museum floor. But at least there's an example of each important style - from a 1910 motorbus photos to the front slice of a modern wheelchair-accessible cuboid. There's a fine view from the top deck of a Stratford tram (blimey, did people really climb narrow steep staircases like that without falling over?). And yes, of course there's a Routemaster, sandwiched inbetween London's first one-man-operated bus and a single decker Green Line coach photos. Oh, and there's a taxi too. Nobody was looking at the taxi.

Rather too much of the ground floor has been given over to 21st century pursuits. The centrepiece isn't a train or a bus but a huge interactive map (very flash, but not quite exciting). Over in the far corner there's an unconvincing DLR mock-up, and a display on sustainability, and some dull words about Oyster cards. Somehow the future is never as interesting as the past. Oh, and I didn't spot a single mention of the new London Overground, not anywhere (except in the gift shop where you can now buy notebooks, pencils and mugs in a delightful shade of vomit-orange). There are a couple of areas set aside for young children to play in, including a minibus to crawl over and a separate activities studio, so don't be afraid to bring your offspring. And there's a mini art gallery too, which is quite the most soulless viewing space I think I've ever entered, with all the charm of a Travelodge foyer. Are we done yet? Take the exit past the trolleybus and maybe you'll be tempted by a souvenir teatowel on the way out.

And my verdict? You'll probably enjoy the first 80% of the tour rather more than the over-corporate finale, but yes, the new streamlined museum is well worth a visit. You'll probably wish there were more objects to look at rather than all that social history to experience, but for those who crave a more hardcore experience there's always the next Acton Depot Open Weekend. You'll probably want to visit the new Covent Garden collection on a schoolday to avoid the crush, and you'll probably wish they'd labelled the larger exhibits more clearly. But there isn't another city on the planet that could assemble as varied and fascinating a transport museum as has London.
by tube: Covent Garden  by bus: RV1

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