The Museum of London Docklands is celebrating its 20th birthday today. It's not its 20th birthday, that was 24th May, two decades since the opening party "with live bands, treasure hunts, costumed actors and a prize for the best-dressed pirate!" But today is the 20th anniversary of the day the Queen turned up and officially opened it (while her husband was upriver spending his birthday being entertained at the Design Museum). Turn up this evening and you can join a celebratory after-hours street party featuring live performances, Jamaican street food, pop-up bars, workshops, tour, talks, films and a pub quiz hosted by Drag Race royalty. But to get a real idea of what the museum's like turn up any other time... which is what I did.
A number of things have changed since the Museum opened, the first most obvious change being that the statue outside has been removed. Robert Milligan was the driving force behind the construction of the West India Docks in the 1800s, successfully creating a quayside monopoly for the unloading of sugar, molasses and rum. But he was also the owner of 526 slaves, an uncomfortable truth, and when the Black Lives Matter spotlight shone here in 2020 his statue was swiftly removed in eight hours flat.
Another big change is that entrance to the museum is now free. Back in 2003 it cost £5 to get in but charges were dropped in 2010 and all you'll see now are pleas to donate £5 instead. The shop is less good than it was, by which I means the eclectic selection of books is hugely depleted and the focus is now on giftier child-focused stuff, which likely makes far more economic sense. Indeed toddlers have always been at the heart of the museum's offer, its interactive Mudlarks gallery much praised, and it's still busy and bringing considerable business to the adjacent cafe. The ground floor exhibition gallery was introduced later to further increase footfall, and has recently increased in size, but has alas been empty since 'Executions' closed at Easter.
'Your journey' still starts on the 3rd floor, indeed don't try taking the stairs because they only disorient. But the opening film has changed since 2003 - you're no longer welcomed by Tony Robinson, it's now a sweeping estuarine travelogue called From the Sea To The City. Visitors are unlikely to sit through the full length of it. To either side are function rooms the museum leverages for additional revenue - Ofgem were meeting in one when I passed through - and ahead is another significant change since opening day. The opening gallery once used to track the backstory of the Thames from prehistory to the Tudors, including a fabulous double-sided scale model of the medieval London Bridge. But that's since been shifted to the church of St Magnus the Martyr and the space now focuses entirely on the building you're standing in which is No 1 Warehouse.
It's the only gallery to have been revamped in the last decade and it looks it. It has a few key exhibits artfully located. It's atmospherically lit. It has video screens to watch and touch. It has signs dangling from the ceiling representing trade. It has signs pointing out windows and stairwells. It is not overencumbered with text. But it is engaging and it does set up the context of your visit and there is plenty to learn. It's also probably a much better introduction than what came before, it's just a shame that with the Museum of London closed at present all that early London history is entirely unrepresented. This means when you turn the first corner the walls are referencing 17th century trade expansion and whaling, just as they ever did, in a brief reminder of what the museum always was.
And then we hit the slave trade. The museum realised fast that it needed more on this key subject and in 2007 ripped out the first two decades of the 19th century, replacing it with the much more reflective Sugar and Slavery gallery. Gone were the staid merchants in wigs and in their place a reflection on ancient African culture, the transportation of human cargo and the long-term implications for the diaspora. It's no cosy tale, forthright in calling out "British Government interference in the affairs of many countries" and solid enough that it hasn't needed replacing in the wake of recent events. And yes a few of the old men in wigs have been relocated downstairs into the City and River gallery, the context for the emergence of the West India Docks already set, and so we return to the story as you remember it.
Sailortown still feels as evocative as ever, though that's mainly the smell which still has the whiff of something unsanitary but which in reality was probably far worse. If the museum was launching these days it'd probably be a video installation but how much more exciting to have a tiny pub to enter, grimy windows to peer through and a pointless back passage to explore. We're back to old school museum after that, i.e. exhibits, models and big display boards, to lead us into the era of Empire, global trade and entrenched inequality. The Museum's never shy to talk about workers' rights and the underdog, but only if you stop and read about them, and on my visit this gallery was instead beset by young parents allowing their as-yet illiterate offspring to treat it as a playground.
At this point stairs used to lead down to a separate gallery but they're now roped off, presumably because the split-level dead-end layout only confused visitors. This means a handful of trade-related exhibits are now marooned on the first floor and only accessible on your way out as an unsigned afterthought. Sadly this space also includes my favourite part of the museum, the SainsburyArchive, where 150+ years of supermarket-related ephemera are stored. I love that it has displays with polyester uniforms and packaging for blancmange powder and a small library where you can browse a book on own-labeldesign, and I always leave with another free Morning Coffee biscuit bookmark. I just wish there was a lot more on display in this criminally-underused space, and that the museum made more of it (and hello to the volunteers beavering away in the back room).
The 20th century is up next, with quite a lot of WW1 and even more of WW2 because that directly impacted upon Docklands, indeed quite literally. And after that come the declining docks, the plans for rebuilding and the eruption of a pioneering commercial district and all that entailed. Again the displays are good on the impact on everyday citizens, and again they're displays you could have read in this exact format when the museum opened because the tale stops dead in 2003 as if the 21st century never happened. It was in this gallery that I blundered into a secondary school field trip who'd exhausted their worksheets and were standing around not really reading anything, perhaps wondering where the screens and buttons were, thereby nudging me towards the exit stairs faster than I'd expected. Like I said, time your visit right.
But hurrah for this splendid museum which still educates me every time I visit, and which may or may not still look much the same in 20 years' time.