diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Museum in Docklands is ten years old this week. The actual anniversary is on Friday, this being one decade since the opening party "with live bands, treasure hunts, costumed actors and a prize for the best-dressed pirate!" I missed that, but I've been back several times since, and it's one of my favourite London museums. There's so much of interest on show that, even though I've seen it all before, I never mind seeing it all again. The history of London's river is well told, from early Roman days to the dawn of Docklands, via whale tusks and Tommy the Tortoise. I still can't physically work out how all the floors and galleries fit together, so twisty is the path from one end to the other, but that never matters. I love that partway round you end up walking through smelly mocked-up dockside streets. I'm amazed that there's an entire Sainsbury archive hidden in the middle. I appreciate being reminded by the Sugar & Slavery gallery that my city's riches are founded on misery and exploitation. But I usually give the ground floor a miss because it's rammed with small kids and their parents making the most of interactive hands-on malarkey.

There don't appear to be any special 10th birthday events this weekend, or at least there are none I can see listed on the museum's website. But there is a special anniversary exhibition which opened last weekend and runs until October. It's called Estuary, and presents visitors with a dozen contemporary artists' views of the outer reaches of the Thames. You might have seen Estuary advertised on the tube, with big yellow letters on a black and white photo depicting a string of Maunsell sea forts. I love the seaforts, having been out to see them on a boat trip once, so stick those on a poster and I'm absolutely going to turn up.

I turned up a few days ago. The bloke on the front desk stopped me to tell me where to begin, but I've been before so I already knew to ascend to the third floor. I was expecting to be greeted by Tony Robinson doing his introductory video, but no, here was a boat and a big yellow cyclorama labelled ESTUARY. Excellent, I thought. Let's start by watching the film.

Behind the yellow wall was a curve of comfy cushioned seats, all focused on a large screen. Entering mid-film I thought that looked like the gangway of the Tilbury Ferry, and indeed it was, which is about as estuarine as you can get. This flipped into an aerial shot of the Thames by the Dome, with a gorgeous dusky sky illuminating the City skyline, and a helicopter buzzing oh so slowly towards the camera. Lovely. Enter bargemaster Tom Cook lolling lugubriously in an armchair, scratching his thick beard, telling the story of his ridiculously jam-packed maritime life. And he's only 27. I could have listened to his recollections all day, which was fortunate because they did go on a bit, twice. Those aerial river shots came round again too, sometimes from the top of the Shard, sometimes tracking shots from lower down. A rope was spliced (ah, so that's how you do it). A boat was launched. The series of short films went on and on.

Being a completist I wanted to stay to the end, so I stayed watching. Nobody else did. It was intriguing to see how long most people lasted - generally no more than five minutes, in some cases barely one. A few couples made it to ten minutes, but only I made it to fifteen. There's quite a lot of Gravesend in these films, isn't there? Twenty-five. Ooh, the Tilbury Ferry, that must mean we're coming back to the start... ah no, false alarm. Thirty-five. Hi, it's beardy Tom again. Forty-five. Seriously, how long is this going to go on? Fifty-five. Oh thank goodness, there goes the ferry's gangplank again, so I can leave. The film's fascinating, but it's more likely a dipping in-and-out thing rather than an endurance test.

But where was the rest of the exhibition? Not here. I'd seen a list of artworks listed in a leaflet, so I was expecting a blown-up photo of Southend, and a performance by the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, and of course those seaforts. Nothing. I wandered round the main exhibition space, wondering whether bits might pop up throughout, but no. I eventually reached the final room where many a temporary exhibition has been held, but no, that contained an East End version of Monopoly and a splendid concentric circle E-postcode map. So where in the building was the rest of the exhibition? I checked the leaflet - no clues - and wandered back to the main entrance. I could have asked someone on the desk I guess, but that's not me, so instead I left empty-headed.

I had the same sort of problem again later in the day. I went to Waterstones in Piccadilly specifically to see the London-based Lego they've got on show there. I found the book that the display is promoting, stacked up on the ground floor in an awkward spot blocking the aisles. And then I wandered the building, from the ground to the fourth, popping into all the crannies where hardbacks and paperbacks are shelved. Not a dimpled plastic brick in sight. I ended up buying two completely different books, but I never found the colourful scale model of St Pancras. Again I could have asked, but instead I assumed the display had moved on, and then left.

I'd made two pointless journeys, at least in terms of the main reasons I'd visited. I thought I knew each building well, but instead I completely missed what I came to see because the location wasn't clear enough. I think I've now worked out where the Estuary exhibition is, but only because I've ploughed through all 30+ minutes of last week's Londonist podcast (they're official media partners, don't you know). The exhibition's somewhere on the ground floor near the cafe, probably, perhaps. There might be more clues in these two YouTube films released by the Museum to promote the exhibition. Whatever, I'm going to have to go back again, and hopefully the location of the Estuary will be blatantly obvious this time.

6pm update: So it turns out the main body of the exhibition is on the ground floor near the cafe. There's also a huge yellow sign with an arrow on it hanging from the ceiling behind the reception desk, but I must have missed that, or else I thought it was pointing towards the lifts. Lo and behold, there's an entire room through there I've never noticed before, inside which are the remaining eleven artworks (on a fairly grand scale). Some are paintings, others are series of atmospheric photographs, but many are films so expect to spend some time here. I spent an hour, all told. 'Thames Film' is a marvellous collection of riverside scenes compiled from archive material, including shots of dockside workers and holidays on Canvey Island. Strangely it was the seaforts piece I couldn't cope with because the text moved by too slowly and I got bored. But in the final area I was delighted to rediscover an 18 minute delight I'd last seen in Margate. Horizon, by John Smith, is a looping sequence of shots from the shoreline, with the top half of the screen always sky and the bottom half always sea. I found it rhythmic and hypnotic, but you might find it boring as hell (in which case we'd probably never get on). So, yes, Estuary is a substantial collection of work, and you have until October to catch up.

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