diamond geezer

 Friday, July 25, 2014

The Thames through London is spanned by dozens of bridges, some of which are showcased in a new exhibition at the Museum in Docklands. It's housed in the ground floor gallery where last year they put on Estuary, so it makes perfect sense that this year they've moved on and are doing Bridge.

The exhibition's mostly art and photographs, so don't come along expecting lots of facts and figures you could probably find on Wikipedia. But this allows the museum to dig into its fine collection, and those of others, to showcase rarely-seen images of iconic (and less iconic) structures. The highlight, heritage-wise, is a small collection of magic lantern slides and negatives depicting Victorian riverscape in sepia and black. The picture quality's not great, nor should it be, but the feeling that you're looking back in time is inescapable. These photos are kept in a darkened room to one side of the gallery, and the real gem is so fragile that it's kept behind glass and only lights up, briefly, when you press a button. It's a salted paper print developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, photography's founding father, and dates back to the first few years of his pioneering process. By now it should have faded irretrievably, but good fortune and conservation have preserved it for modern eyes. A bunch of boats on the foreshore is clearly seen, and that's what used to be Brunel's Hungerford Bridge in the background, long since replaced. I'm told that the Fox Talbot print "will be on display for one month only", and given that the exhibition opened precisely four weeks ago, that leaves you just this weekend to see it.

In the main gallery, at the other end of the timescale, one frame contains an illustration of Thomas Heatherwick's Garden Bridge, a vision of London yet to come. Another "under construction" picture shows the skeleton of Blackfriars Bridge as it might have been, raised up on two arches built from intertwined metal girders. Progressing round the exhibition space there are occasional visits to non-central spans at Richmond, Hammersmith and Dartford, and one to the lovely Albert. But the majority of the curated images alas stick to more familiar ground, specifically the bridges along the golden touristy stretch from Westminster to Tower. See London Bridge during its construction, or one of its constructions, and look inside to see the cable-carrying concrete conduits that snake within. Watch out for St Paul's in the background, unchanging, as the riverfront evolves from trading interface to commercial centre. sailing ships become boats become tourist cruisers, lamps become electric lights, horses and carts become red double deckers. What shines through is continuity and change, the river ever present, while how we choose to cross relentlessly updates.

It's not all static images. A slideshow in one booth shows an artist walking on London Bridge, back and forth in the stream of morning commuters, oblivious to their part in her artwork. And then there's "the film", an eleven minuter screened in a darkened cinema area beside the main entrance. Back in 1997 percussionist Paul Burwell was sent on a journey downriver on the back of a boat, his voyage captured in a short entitled Beating the Bridges. The boat set off at 5am up Hammersmith way (drummer-free at this point, so as not to antagonise the waterfront), before slowly working its way through the centre and out to the estuary at Dartford. Paul's semi-manic bashing begins around Westminster, and while he beats and flails in rhythm we watch London's bridges pass by in panorama overhead. I think I spent as long watching William Raban's filmlet as I spent wandering round the remainder of the exhibition.

There is a large folded guide to pick up, or preferably purchase for a quid, although the contents are less about the Bridge exhibition and more about what you can see that's bridge-related in the remainder of the museum, so I wasn't over-excited. You should of course walk around the main museum if you never have, I think it's a fascinating guide to London's maritime history (although a friend considers the Museum in Docklands the most boring museum in London, so be warned). I'll also say that I enjoyed last year's Estuary more, or at least it held my attention for longer, but that was less pictures in frames and more multimedia. But Bridge is well worth a look, not least for the breadth and rarity of what's on display, and you have until November to get here. Perhaps even make the journey to Canary Wharf by Thames Clipper, because that way you get to experience ten of London's bridges for real, and surely that's the best experience of all.

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