Friday, 24 September 2010

London on Display: The Museum of London.

Main Entrance.
Not everyone who reads this blog is a 'Lunduner', some haven't been here (why not? get over here and buy me a drink!) but this is a London blog even before it is a vintage blog. But in my mind the two are very closely mixed. Londoners like their city a bit manky and ravaged. We really don't mind the odd dead pigeon or scuttling rat. Those who plan clean shiny places for the city very rarely come from the capital. London will however envelop all comers if they let it, in a grubby affectionate beer - stained hug. Whilst it is without doubt an elegant city, its curmudgeonly shabby edge exaggerates glamour where it is found. We rub along in big crowds of individuals annoying the hell out of eachother until someone turns on us and suddenly finds they are facing a peculiarly united front.

Roman floor mosaic
These impressions were brought into sharp relief by a recent visit to The Museum of London who have recently spent millions on new displays covering the late 18th - 21st centuries. If you haven't visited this museum close to the Barbican centre it is worth a trip not least because it is free. London's history is fascinating and broadly characterised by extremes of wealth and poverty, a strong survival instinct and a creative vitality. This provides the museum with a fantastic story to tell, the problem is there is so much of it and the museum's space is not adequate. This means it can have a crammed in feel, prompting the need to rethink it's displays.

Part of the original Roman/Medieval London Wall next to the Museum.
The earlier galleries are aided by the archaeological riches this city seems to provide across pre-modern periods. The place is really a boggy receptacle ready to receive and preserve the detritus abandoned sometimes in panic but mainly in disinterest. Londoners are it seems inveterate litterers. There are not many other cities where a back garden dig can be so illuminating (and dangerous). Roman coins, pre-historic flints, bits of human bone and the odd unexpected world war II bomb turn up with a regularity that keep the Museum's  research staff very busy. The displays on the mercantile development of the city, it's international character and bewildering variety of residents, bad habits, creativity and the disasters it has survived provide riveting subject matter. It is also an overly wide remit. I have always thought that London needs several new museums devoted solely to medicine, crime and policing, the Thames and commerce. In the case of the Museum of London their earlier displays always seemed more assured as if they were unsure how to proceed with the city's more immediate less archealogical past.

Costumes in the Vauxhall Pleasure Garden display.
An effect has been made to redress this with new galleries. The Georgian one is wonderful, with bits on trade, the abolitionists, furniture, habits and poverty that really bring the Londoners of the period to life. The one covering the pre-second world war period is also a definite improvement.  An old London cab, wonderful clothes and deco lamps are featured and the mini film show reel was fun. Particularly the image of the flapperesque couple dancing on top of a car travelling through London. I particularly appreciated the display on the suffragettes. I didn't however appreciate the old chap laughing at Miss Pankhurst's recorded speech and shaking his head in amusement - ladies should I have whopped him on the head with my handbag there and then? The best gift in the museum shop was in fact the suffragette tote bag, think I'll buy one of those. Not so sure about the idea of a Suffragette themed tea towel though.

Part of the pre war London display.
The galleries representing recent London history were however unsatisfying, there seemed to be a reluctance to dive in properly as was the case in previous displays. I'm an Art Historian by degree and expected a concentration on post-war recovery, particularly housing. Sadly a half hearted effort to do so was demonstrated by a trendy interactive display about development and the river. A message to curators, in BOLD: INTERACTIVE DISPLAYS ARE HIJACKED BY KIDS WHO DON'T UNDERSTAND THE DISPLAY BUT MESS AROUND WITH IT, DRIVING AWAY THE ADULTS AND BREAKING IT, so kindly less of the lights and computer whizz jigs. Oh and I fail to see why a model of some trendy arse squat of victorian houses was more relevant than say the Aylesbury Estate or Tenements or Docklands redevelopments. Most working class Londoners live in council estates and I would have liked a bit more on the feel and history of them rather than some arty artists representation of them.

Add 20 screaming kids and the display doesn't really work.
I also anticipated a real emphasis upon London's 20th century contributions to  theatre, art and design, youth movements and music. These latter elements are the things that have really coloured the city and it's conception of itself.  I expected a continuation of the themes running through the earlier displays: of trade and resulting migration, of conflict with authority, of creativity. I expected the Windrush, the closing of the Docks, Vietnamese Boat People, the Brixton Riots, the Dockers strike, CND marches, IRA campaigns, Soho in the fifties, slum clearance, Punk, The Thames Barrier, Black Monday and so forth. These elements were there in part but the general conclusion and focus was that London now was an entity completely different to it's previous incarnation.  Yep, the wooly fluff that is the dreamy idea of multicultural London was the focal point and it was claimed that London is suddenly a completely different city to the one it had been previously.

A model of some squats occupied by artists and musicians.
So Roman London was the same as Jacobean London? And all those black people in Southwark in the 18th century and Jews and Huguenots in the East End in the 16th century played no part? And my own very mixed ethnic London ancestry counts for nothing because only new people have made this particular London I live in? London is shaped by all the communities that arrive here; equally London shapes them, that's why we can genuinely describe it as an international and cosmopolitan city. And this has been the case throughout all of London history as is shown by the entirety of the previous displays.  And some twat wants to go changing what it is into what they would like their fantasy London to be.

The modern display was deeply patronising and in feeling the need to demarcate West Indian, African and Islamic Asians as a new or different kind of Londoner it was also quite racist. The 'unfashionable' groups were left out, Indians, Chinese, Jews, Portuguese and East Europeans barely factored. There was an inference that without these particular migrant sectors London would not be London. Certainly it might not be the same London but it would still have been here, and we cannot say whether the new communities have had a positive or detrimental effect. Who knows? history should make you think about what has really happened not maybes. I thought it was lazy and lacked the historical vigour in all the previous displays.  The display even ended in a display of largely horrendously poor art work, a look at the names of the artists and their locations revealed that there was more tokenism on the go here. There was also very little on leisure activities such as the pub, the footie, the dogs or even sitting in the Park. Just a lot of guff about festivals.

I was also intrigued by a reticence to address what is undeniably the secret engine that drives London; The City. Where were the displays and tales of it's excesses and the banking sector? The Museum is funded by The City and perhaps they were reluctant to display their own recent history. It is also a disgrace that whilst crappy art works are in a bright room the Lord Mayors Coach is in an ante room, despite being the most famous object in the Museum.

Tucked away in a side room, the Lord Mayor's Coach.
All in all, it is a thumbs up to the whole place and the first part of the new galleries. The modern ones just annoyed the hell out of me (could you tell?). And thats not just because they made me feel old. This is because an object I actually own ( a Crass ep) is actually on display. Mind you I feel like a museum object myself sometimes 'cantankerous South Londoner, female, provenance unknown circa 1965, please do not touch'.
You know you are old when the contents of a museum display case look so familiar...
It is a museum full of wondrous objects, I love the Roman bits and bobs, the displays of debris that are displayed in glass panels under your feet and the dresses in the Vauxhall Pleasure Park section.  I am also aware of the fact that one's view of one's home is subjective so my opinion is just that. However  I feel the MOL should follow the Imperial War Museum's approach in dealing with difficult subjects and just tell it as it was.

Comments welcome as ever! x


Ruth said...

Pretty refreshing analysis! I've never made it beyond the Plague section in 4 visits (I have 2 of those annoying children which leap on interactive gubbins & hinder progress) & this has spurred me on to get back & see more, however disappointing certain sections may be. I hope that Suffragette tea-towel was produced in irony...wonder how well it sells?

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