The Museum of London

Those astute observers among you might have noticed a glaring gap in my museum reviews. I have told of a famous person’s house, the first national public museum in the world, and a medieval fortress.

But there is one museum that has been conspicuously absent, and one with I have been in near constant rapport. And so, without further ado, my final review:

Museum of London’s Logo

The Museum of London has a funky layout. This is not libel, this it the honest-to-goodness truth.

In order to enter, you must first ride up an escalator,

then walk across a pedestrian bridge over the street,

at which point you walk around a small courtyard (still in the air) and up to the front doors.

The white building reading “Museum of London” is the museum proper.

Once inside it’s what one would expect, with a central welcome desk,

a shop and cafe (not pictured) on the left,

View from mezzanine (leading to classroom spaces) out front of Museum entry.

the galleries begin on the right.

The Museum of London takes a very straightforward approach, being all about the history of London, they choose to tell it in chronological order, beginning, however, with a nod to Londoners and the people who make up the city (whose stories, after all, are the most important aspect of what the Museum sets out to document).

“Looking for Londoners”

The galleries proper start with prehistory, or “London Before London.”

Upon entering the galleries, this is to the right. “Looking for Londoners” is straight ahead.

It is interesting to note that, due to the layout of the building, the first layer of exhibits is actually on the top floor, and one must go downstairs to continue into the “Modern” era (post-Great Fire to today).

The Roman Gallery is on the right, one could bypass the entire upper floor by walking along this channel. Note “People’s City” on the floor below.

There are many interesting objects to look at, and the Museum does an excellent job of maximizing square footage in order to include as many items as possible. Seriously, the periods on the upper floor contain just oodles and oodles (to use the academic term) of stuff. So. Much. Stuff.

A sampling of all the stuff.

We move from prehistoric London to the Roman Gallery,

More stuff.

. . . where in addition to the displays is a viewing area in which a part of the original Roman Wall can be seen.

I was torn between admiration for the sheer quantities included and a feeling of helplessness from not knowing where to look next. Usually it went from “Wow look at all of this!” to “Wow, look at all of this?” to “Wow, look at what I just saw in this specific case!”

Leather bikini bottoms.

I think in the end I’m going to have to go with admiration for the sheer quantities included, the layout and display methods used kept things interesting and engaging, and the items were fun to look at and over. If there was something that didn’t seem super exciting, it was easily passed over on the quest for what was, and there were so many things all around that one was virtually guaranteed to find something to suit even the most exacting of tastes.

After the Romans came the Medieval period (including the subgroup of War, Plague, and Fire), all done up with stonework and weaponry, with religious subjects and interiors of homes.

Medieval London


Lots and lots of things.

I am a big fan of the layout (as previously stated), but I really adore those glass cases standing in the middle of the floor. They add depth and dimension that I find very appealing, perhaps even more so as they add a level of mystery: What’s behind that case? What will I see when I walk around it? It’s like being in a garden, they always say to add curves to the flower beds and to the paths for interest, flow, and excitement.

(Needless to say I was already excited, but still. The general idea holds true.)

The Great Fire of 1666 brings us to the end of Old London and ushers us into the New, or Modern London. Here the Museum has taken advantage of the aforementioned two-stories, locating Modern London down a flight of stairs, moving us, if you will, both physically and mentally into a new state of mind.

Down down down . . . .

It is interesting to note that the layout – and subsequent feel – of the two floors is very different.

The top floor, pre-modern London, is very typical “Museum”. It is similar, for example, to that of the V&A, with the glass cases and placement of items on both the sides of the room and in the center. It has altogether a more formal, stately feel to it; although not nearly on the same level as the British Museum, it is certainly more so than the lower level of the Museum of London that deals in the modern and post-modern.

The lower floor is an altogether less constrained, inviting and interactive experience. This is not to say that the scheme that worked so well up top is done away with – it’s not – but the overall feel of the plan is different. Children seemed to have a lot more fun in the lower level than on the first, and I too found myself lingering longer and moving a bit slower.

I think in part this is due to the greater concentration in items and the divvying up of space on the lower level. There, individual rooms have been created with specific focuses in each, while the top was more of one long, continuous space partitioned through the use of cases and erected barriers, calling for constant movement over frequent stops.

These exhibits move in a clockwise fashion around a central wall showcasing the faces and quotes of famous people in regards to London:

If one wished, one could walk past the entire lower level and straight into the cafe, much like one could walk around the upper level, down the stairs, and to the cafe. It’s a wonder most people don’t do just that. (I tease, of course. Who could eat muffins when HISTORY is right around the corner?)

Anyway, the exhibits are so alluring the temptation for tea and “biscuits” can’t be that great.

The first area, however, is not very promising. In order to enter it one first must walk down the stairs and into what is essentially a long walkway:

The Galleries of Modern London.

You can see the stairs on the far left; to the right is the nice exhibit that must be passed through in order to reach the not-so-nice exhibit, visible to the left and slightly behind the sign.

The pathway. Turn left for nice exhibit, head straight and to the right for tea and muffins.

. . . intentionally diverting to the left into an exhibit on London’s production and industry in the late 17th and 18th centuries, which is part of the overarching subject “Expanding City: 1670’s – 1850’s”.

This part is done easily enough, as the display is appealing, but not so the act of backtracking through that display into the unpromising area previously mentioned. It seems to be a bit of an outlier, containing a prison cell, interior of a house, and Victoria’s dolls from when she was a child. I don’t know quite what to make of this section, and I don’t think many other people did either, as it was never very crowded, save little girls clustered around the dolls.

The dolls, some of which belonged to the future Queen Victoria.

The interior home reconstruction.

I am inclined to forgive this area, as my absolute favorite display case is in the one passed through, and it’s a real delight to walk back into the gallery.

This is not my favorite display, but it’s my favorite focal point:

Surprise, it’s a dress.

While the dress itself is stunning, the display itself is stellar. How many times have you seen a beautiful dress behind glass and thought to yourself, “That’s pretty and all, but how on earth would you wear it?”


This is of a video playing in the case next to the dress, showing a woman dancing, standing, sitting, moving, and all-around WEARING this dress (well, not the actual dress, that would be absurd, but the panniers and corset, etc. etc. necessary to give this dress its shape, just like whoever actually owned this would have worn.). I really like this because it brings a new level of understanding and life to an otherwise static object way past its prime moldering behind glass. It was once worn, admired, and most likely held in very high esteem by its owner. And now we as the viewer get to experience a part of that, without ever having to put the thing on.

This is my favorite display case, “Empire”:

“Empire”, located along the back wall.

“Empire” just about gets it all right. It is this case I had in mind when I planned my own exhibit for the final paper in my King’s class. Everywhere there are pertinent objects of all varieties, shapes, and sizes, and of course lovely examples of men’s and women’s wear. The layout, the flow, the information included, all work together to create an eye-catching, engaging display that’s fun to look at really gives the feel of the time period depicted.

We move on from “Empire” into “New City” and some things in the floor:

I originally thought this was an odd layout, but later came to understand that these items were found in the ground and therefore have been arranged accordingly.

In any event it’s a real hit with the children, who are thrilled to be standing on historical artifacts.

. . . on to the “Pleasure Gardens”.

The Pleasure Gardens are kept at low light because of the many textiles contained therein.

Apparently, given what I’ve heard from Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts, the Pleasure Garden exhibit cost a lot of money.

This is to be expected, given that it deals almost exclusively with clothing decked out for a garden party:

. . . while also attempting to recreate walking through a garden party for the viewer. This includes having some mannequins located out of the case:

Far left, pink dress, white cap.

. . . and a video playing on two of the walls showing actors carrying out a dramatic rendition of the garden party we are supposed to be walking through.

I did not like this display.

The costumes were gorgeous, no doubt, moving from the 1750’s through the 1840’s:

1752 – 1775


This one is no longer on display but it looks really cool and reminds me of another ship-headdress I’ve seen at the Kyoto Costume Institute in Kyoto, Japan:

You know you want one.


1801 – 1810

1841 – 1845

I never could resist an opportunity of adding a string of dress photographs . . . .

It wasn’t the costumes I didn’t like, it was the video.

I do not think the video accurately portrayed the time period (which I believe to be the latter half of the 18th century), giving off the impression of being more along the lines of a high school theater production (Snappy dialogue! Servants mouthing off to employers!) than a faithful recreation of a fairly well-known era. It’s not like it couldn’t have been done, (look no further than the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility), and I honestly expected a lot more from a museum of this caliber. I understand what they were trying to do, and I think it was a good idea, but it fell short on both concept and execution.

Not being one to overly dwell on the negative, let us move onto other things. Following the so-called “Pleasure Gardens” is the aptly-named “Victorian Walk”, which recreates what walking down a Victorian street filled with shopfronts would have been like.

I think this area worked much better than the aforementioned one, namely because there were no garish videos featuring modern people playing pretend in period costume (last jab, I promise).

There really wasn’t a whole lot dedicated to the Victorian period outside of the walk (which I will admit is fairly large), at least in the way of normative museum fare. The preceding and following areas both follow the standard layout, leading us to the latter, titled “People’s Capital”, dating from the Edwardian era through the 1940’s.

We begin with a pretty cool looking car:

and look at some of the clothes worn from the late 1800’s into the 1920’s:

That’s the stage costume for the musical “Peter Pan” second from the right. 

pausing to admire the large Selfriges lift taking up a vast quantity of space (which it does earn):


After setting the stage, we are ushered down a hallway, the first part being dedicated to the Suffragette movement of the 1910’s,  the second focusing on World Wars I and II.

We end the Wars with a movie about them and their effect on London, which I never stopped to watch, followed by a little section on the “Modern Capital”:

. . . finally ending up in “World City” from the 1950’s – Today.

Here we revert back to the tried-and-true method of centrally located cases, each devoted to a particular decade or theme:

Olympics 2012

After leaving “Today”, one would expect to be finished with viewing and released to the comforts of tea and pastries located in the lower-level cafe, but if one hangs a left instead of making a beeline to the counter there’s an interesting and very inventive display area titled “Show Space”, which I’ve already discussed here. To paraphrase, this is an area where slightly unusual items, those about which not much is known, or those that may be damaged or very fragile can be displayed for short amounts of time. All the work in showing them is handled exclusively by the curators themselves, and licences are taken via informality and even a bit of irreverence that normally wouldn’t be in a normal Museum exhibit.

If one continues on the left-walking trajectory, there is a temporary exhibit space titled “Inspiring London”, currently occupied by “London Dust”. This is the space changed out every six months (April and October) in which London is the inspiration for the displays, and where my own planned exhibit, if real, would be located, with London’s Jane Austen as the displayed material.

Ahead is the “City Gallery”

To the right is the cafe and seating area. It’s very cute and inviting.

Passing through this area is another strange outlier, in the form of the “City Gallery”, in which various bits and bobs, mostly pageantry, specific to the City of London (the oldest borough of London proper, site of Roman foundation, the Great Fire, St. Paul’s, and the current business district).

Here is located the Lord Mayor’s gilded coach, hitched up to six life-sized horse statues.

This thing is so garish and ostentatious I cannot bring myself to like it, even if the Mayor actually does ride out in it every year.

. . . .

As I reach the end of my review on the Museum of London, I can’t help but feel like I’m actually leaving it for the last time.

I can see it still: walking past the cafe, out of the museum proper and into the area containing the restrooms and other such necessities. The stairs are on the right, one continues down, but that is labeled “Staff Only”. I’ve had the privilege of walking down those stairs, of seeing what lies beyond.

But not now.

Now, I climb up . . . up, past the lockers, up, stopping on the main floor. I can see the shop to my right, the doors streaming light in front of me.

This time I’m not going in the shop. I’m headed to the doors.

And like that, I’m outside, standing in front of the Museum. I still have that funky garden to walk around, the wall to step through, out onto that exposed walkway above the street.

I myself will be on the street soon enough, a short descent down the elevator will spit me out onto the sidewalk.

Only it won’t, because I’m no longer in London. I’m in Cleveland. On my sofa. With my furry orange cat snoozing next to me.

It’s all before me, the Museum in its lights and smells, sounds and visions. And if I’ve done this right, it’s there for you too.

We’ve learned together, perused together, and gained insights together.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.


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