diamond geezer

 Tuesday, November 29, 2022

On Sunday the Museum of London will be closing its doors for the last time. Its been on its current site beside the Barbican since 1976, and perhaps looks it, and a new larger building is already being prepared in the old Smithfield market. But that won't be open until 2026 so if you want a last dose of London's cultural history to tide you over you need to get down there this week. I went for a final walk round yesterday, when it was still just normally busy and not yet pre-closure hectic.

When a museum's been open for a while there is a tendency to think you've seen it all, but often it pays to stop and read the labels beside the stuff you've walked past several times. Take the prehistoric London before London gallery, for example, which at first glance is mostly bones and rocks. But on closer inspection I learned that lions and tigers once ruled Crayford, mammoths roamed Ilford and hippos wallowed in Peckham, because London was once just an anonymous patch of icy/tropical wilderness. I learned that my house was once in the middle of the River Thames, approximately 400,000 years ago, courtesy of the low-tech maps on the slidy glass. I learned how to tell the difference between an adze and a mattock, because not every sharpened flint had the same function. And it struck me that until about 2000 years ago this could have been anywhere's backstory because London was nothing special yet.

The Roman London gallery, however, is a treasure trove of relics far better than your average local museum's. Here are the statues you won't see at the Temple of Mithras because they're here instead, here's a tiny ring they dug up in Bow in 1995 whose gemstone features two nose-to-nose mice, and here's a 3rd century coin minted during the decade when London attempted to go it alone and failed. I fear the new museum will never be able to match the magic moment when the displays stop and you're invited to look at the real city wall out of the next window. But it's also true that the presentation has become a little dated over the years, perhaps best exemplified by the aerial photo that purports to show "the boundary of Roman London imposed on the modern city" with a lowrise skyline that's comfortably pre-Gherkin.

The Medieval gallery contains the first of three audiovisual presentations devoted to the City's greatest disasters. Step into the low-tech auditorium, crick your neck and you can watch a few illustrated images relating to the Black Death - in which over half of the population of London died. I watched to the end and wasn't especially overwhelmed, but the content did resonate a little more after the pandemic we've all just lived through. The second cataclysm crops up in the next gallery and relives the Great Fire of London. I took my seat at the back of the mini-theatre and was once again disappointed that the model of the City below the screen only ever glowed slightly, never burned. At least I got the full-on nostalgic experience when a class of infants piled in, didn't really understand what was going on and were told repeatedly to sit down by their teacher, because that's how the MoL should be remembered.

Somewhere around the 16th century the museum's lighting gets a bit gloomy. I suspect this is to help preserve the artefacts on display, which are now more likely to be made of paper or material, but it does make reading all the labels a little squintier. Lighting levels feel dimmer still once you've walked downstairs to the Georgian zone, which I always think is the least impactful of the chronological galleries. That said I always get a shiver from touching the door of Newgate Prison, and from wandering into the cell nextdoor with so many prisoners' names carved into the timbers. I wonder how many of these larger exhibits will survive into the new museum - will there be space for the am-dram theatre of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the much-loved warren of Victorian shops and the London 2012 cauldron, or is this genuinely your last chance to see?

Given the age of these displays it's reassuring to see the stories of Seacole, Equiano and Bennelong given due prominence amid the tales of Empire, expansion and derring-do. But I suspect they'll be much more prominent in the updated museum because the modern curatorial tendency is to highlight stories that resonate with today's diverse population rather than reflecting the values of the time. The topics of poverty, sanitation, women's suffrage and workers' solidarity are also given due coverage here, although it does feel like the displays skip through the 19th and early 20th centuries because space is at a premium and there's a War to cover. London's most recent mass destruction event was the Blitz, and I made sure to sit through the full ten minute audio-visual presentation brought to life by evocative personal testimony. Again there's no reason this'll transfer to Smithfield, in which case these moving words that've played repeatedly to millions of visitors may never be heard again.

Postwar the museum offers a cavalcade of items that older visitors can point at and go "ah yes". A Double Diamond drinks mat, a Mary Quant dress, a platform boot, the first ever copy of Time Out, a Rock Against Racism badge, the actual Flowerpot Men. The one exhibit I suspect everyone loves is the "Less Passion from Less Protein" banner regularly paraded by Stanley Green down Oxford Street. But there's almost nothing here from the last 20 years, indeed even the final panel entitled 'London Futures?' already looks ridiculously outdated having completely failed to predict the imminent eruption of umpteen skyscrapers. As crocodiles of schoolchildren file through to their next gathering point and older teenagers dash round looking for non-existent buttons to press, you can see why the relocated museum might want to take a different approach.

They've given a hint of what that approach might be in the 'test space' just before the exit in which they present ideas for the future Roman Shop & House gallery. It looks to have more space but also fewer artefacts and more screens. Here 'animated Roman characters will appear going about their lives', for example Ulpia who is of African descent and owns a few slaves, just to make you stop and think. Around the room, in an attempt to be more honest, 'everything that is not real will be painted blue'. Perhaps most telling is that the artist's impression shows three visitors looking at blue walls and smiling rather than interacting with the room's expensive interactive features. The current Museum of London is essentially a repository of stuff and tells the capital's story through objects. The new museum may be very different.

You have five days left to tour the Museum of London in its current home and to bleed the gift shop dry (although all that's left on special offer is past exhibition programmes for £2). There'll then be three years while they shift everything over to the new site, which isn't ready yet, so I'm not quite sure why the mothballing has had to start this early. Remember you can still get a dose of full-on London history in the Museum of Docklands during the hiatus, even if that's feeling somewhat tired these days too, especially the fact that (yet again) the 21st century is barely represented. And expect this weekend at the MoL to be crushingly manic, even with 24-hour opening, so the sooner the better.

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