On the Museum of London’s new galleries

What does it say about the new exhibition space at the Museum of London that all the Museum’s own publicity — even the branding on their own website, e.g. here — refers to these as ‘the new £20 million Galleries of Modern London’, the ‘£20 million’ price tag conjoined with the galleries’ name as firmly as the constituent parts of some Homeric trope?

Not much, perhaps. Yet it’s worth going on to read the other claims the brief online synopsis makes for the Museum’s redesigned lower floor rooms:

Three years in the making, five new galleries tell the story of London and its people from 1666 to the present day. 7,000 objects, show-stopping interactives, specially designed family areas, film and changing displays transport you through the capital’s tumultuous history, rich with drama, triumph and near disaster.

As is so often the case with history, it’s the rhetorical colour that lingers long after what detail there is has begun to fade away — in particular, that familiar emphasis on novelty, abundance and spectacle.

Combine this with the launch of the Museum’s own iPhone app, Streetmuseum — and for those interested in the relationship between the launch of Streetmuseum and the opening of the new galleries, there’s a fascinating interview with the Museum of London’s marketing manager here — and the nature of the ‘repositioning’ underway here could hardly be more obvious. Out with the merely didactic displays, the rows of carefully-labelled items, silent and thoughtful contemplation of history’s wreckage, the dark romance of extreme street-by-street specificity and hard-won local knowledge — in with diversion, distraction, sensory skimming over the surface of a past at once highly generalised yet also fragmented into incoherence, projections both metaphorical and literal, noise, restlessness half-attention always in search of something marginally more interesting — in a word, ‘entertainment’, which is what the new exhibition space seems to be all about.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Galleries of Modern London have already proved an enormous success.

Critics love the place — see here, here and here. Crowds flock to it. And of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with pleasing people, distracting them, entertaining them. Several commentators have made the point that, in managing to acquire £20 million to lavish on these new galleries, the Museum of London was supernaturally fortunate in its timing — receiving its Lottery Fund grant pre-credit crunch, when the ageing New Labour government was still able to spend as if there would never be a tomorrow. And indeed, the result is precisely the crowd-drawing, critic-pleasing enterprise towards which contemporary public funding naturally tends. So at one level, anyway, the organisers of the new galleries should properly rejoice in a job well done, that much-vaunted £20 million well spent, all boxes regarding ‘accessibility’ and ‘relevance’ well and truly ticked, mission accomplished. And if the odd habitual dissenter expresses a few reservations, confessing perhaps to the slightly wistful intuition that somehow, amidst all the glitz and innovation, something has been lost — well, why on earth should anyone mind about that?

A little bit of history
My own experience as a visitor to the Museum of London stretches back to the early 1980s. Even then, all those years ago, the Museum’s design, instituted circa 1976, was notably innovative and surprising — but also intermittently showy, shallow and confusing.

Famously, there was only one route through the galleries. The emphasis was thus turned more on the experience of visiting the museum than on its specific content, since there was no way in which a serious student could visit and re-visit a relevant gallery without passing through all the others, too, any more than it was possible for someone bored rigid by some particular period to miss it out altogether. So in that sense, the Museum of London was less like a reference volume, more like an analogue film or concert performance in which all the serious choices are entrusted to the director, not the consumer.

All of which is fine, of course, unless the consumer happens to be the sort of freak who prefers reference books to films or concerts. Brought up amongst the sort of ‘traditional’ museums that conformed to the British Museum or National Gallery model — whole sections of large buildings, usually classical in idiom, broken up into geographical or chronological departments, further subdivided along chronological lines, instructive rather than theatrical in exposition — I remember finding the Museum of London’s organisation persistently irksome. For is the past simply a some sort of journey, the point being to travel from the start of the narrative to the end by the most direct route, stopping as little as possible along the way — or is it, on the contrary, a series of moments, each worthy of being studied individually in some depth? Maturity may have chipped away at the dogmatic certainty with which I would have answered that question three decades ago, but it hasn’t — yet — altered completely the nature of my reply.

There then followed a long phase during which the Museum of London came to signify more to me in terms of its serious, important archaeological investigations than as a study in the failures of cutting-edge curatorial display practice. Because that’s the other side of the Museum of London — its ongoing role in discovering, conserving and interpreting London’s more and less distant past.

Yet it would be wrong to draw some sort of Manichean distinction between the serious and frivolous even here, because the Museum of London has a brilliant track-record not only in conducting important archaeological work, but in being seen to conduct important archaeological work — insuring that there’s always something tasty to be spoon-fed to the media, keeping the local population on side through the dark arts of ‘stakeholder engagement’, convincing developers and public bodies that archaeology is so much more than a bunch of grey shards packed away in neatly-labelled shoe-boxes by graduate students who really ought to have something more productive to do with their state-subsidised time. And since this is precisely the sort of exercise that can mean the difference between being able, for instance, to investigate a building-site before development versus watching the bulldozers rip their insensate way through millennia of irrecoverable artefacts and contextual information, who amongst us could fail to salute it?

More recently, however, there’s been a third new phase in my relationship with the Museum of London. Parenthood is swift to deform one’s mental map of the metropolis, rarely more obviously so than in the case of museums and galleries. At one end, there are the distinctly nerve-racking propositions, especially for parents of young toddlers — who realised that the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing had such exciting acoustic qualities? — while at the other end, there are spaces in which the childless must, I suppose, feel under-accessorized, so ubiquitous are the under-6 cultural connoisseurs.

Thus it came to pass that since the Museum of London turns out to be one of the most child-friendly museums in London, I’ve visited its galleries more often in the few short years since my son was born than in the preceeding couple of decades. During that time he’s patted replica Roman mosaics with only slightly cake-sticky fingers, lamented the disappearance of aurochs from the West End, expressed a desire to live in the replica Saxon longhouse and been scared by the Great Fire sound-effects. And perhaps inevitably, the result is that now, at the age of 5 years, he already approaches the Museum of London through those weird concrete walkways knowing exactly what he wants to see, storming purposefully past everything else until he has reached his desired goal, checking that it’s still there before moving on to the next target — thus doing his best to sabotage the best laid plans of celebrated modernist architects and their museum-designing friends. That’s my boy!

Galleries of the Spectacle?
My son and I visited the Museum of London’s Modern Galleries just over a week ago, on what turned out to be a bank holiday and the start of half term for many London schools. Having shrewdly anticipated that the Museum might, under the circumstances, fill up a bit, we sprinted through the millenia, past ‘London before London’ (aurochs and arrowheads — hurrah) all the way to ‘War, Plague and Fire’ (Oliver Cromwell’s death mask and those Great Fire sound effects — hiss) before descending the ramp into the new exhibition space which, twenty minutes past opening time, was already well-populated.

What, then, of the Modern Galleries?

Let’s start with the space itself. The new rooms are laid out in what is by now a very conventional form of gallery design — which is to say, no mere enfilades of rectangular rooms in which clear routes of movement channel the visitor along the well-marked paths of chronology, but rather a chaotic space dotted with eye-catching distractions, so that one drifts from this marvel to that one, wondering briefly and then moving on, glancing down at some shards of china or pairs of shoes slotted into the floor, popping briskly into some immersive environment before popping equally briskly out again, rambling largely aimlessly, absorbing sensation rather than assimilating information, diverted rather than taught, entertained instead of informed. It’s all about distraction, not concentration or critical thinking.

Is this a problem? Well, not necessarily. If, for instance, one enters these galleries already armed with an enormous wealth of information regarding the 300 years which they seek to evoke, one might well go away pleasantly by some incidental encounter with one or two of the thousands of marvellous objects the Museum of London possesses. Otherwise, though, what does one take away? Scattered impressions — an oddly-shaped dress shot through with silver thread, a prison cell, some film of Diane Abbot MP rendered inaudible by the noise from another audio-exhibit, dim theatrical lighting and generalised confusion — coupled with the difficulty of understanding where to go next. The periods of time discussed are so broad that once could be forgiven for failing to see that the London of 1660 was in any important way different from the London of 1850. And anyone coming here seeking the basic outlines of what actually happened in London between the Great Fire and the present will, I suspect, end up very confused indeed.

But on the other hand, it’s all very entertaining, very lively, very welcoming for those whose children have extremely truncated attention-spans, very congenial for those whose intellectual processes run more to Twitter than the Survey of London. (For those of us who have long assumed that an inability to concentrate was the natural consequence of long-term communion with that most obviously superficial and stupid of all possible media, television, it’s worth reading this Wired piece about the impact of even short-term internet browsing on attention spans — assuming that any of us can possibly make it as far as the end of the article, that is.)

Also, is it cynical to point out that this would be a seriously good space for corporate entertainment? Clients could move randomly through the apparently haphazard routes, colliding with miscellaneous contacts before swapping for someone more significant, perhaps occasionally discussing some random half-understood treasure without allowing any of this to distract them from the really serious business at hand — which is business, of course, not history, because it is very hard to make money out of history, just as it would be very hard to justify spending £20 million on something that’s only of interest to a handful of academics, researchers and all-purpose geeks.

Press complaints
Forget narrative for a moment — easy enough to do in the Galleries of Modern London. If one simply wishes to discover facts about the individual items on display, this is often far from straightforward.

Take, for instance, what is arguably the first item to be encountered in the new galleries — a printing press. Now, this press puzzled me. Not least, review after review had claimed, as this quotation from the Independent does, that ‘the centrepiece [of the ‘Expanding City’ gallery] is a wooden printing press that spews electronic headlines, a startling anachronism used to stress the city’s growing literacy’. Unless I am missing something, however, the press does not ‘spew’ ‘electronic headlines’. Rather, photos of newspaper pages — not in all cases obviously ‘electronic’, either — are projected in sequence onto boards suspended above and across the top of the press. And whether or not one finds the association between a press and printed material ‘startling’ — perhaps I’m simply a bit jaded or something — the one major achievement of this conceit is, in fact, to obscure our views of the press itself.

And this, in turn, was a pity. My young son has some vague idea about how old-fashioned printing presses work, both because he has seen them in books, and because they sometimes feature in the vintage children’s television programming which constitutes virtually his only exposure to that over-rated medium. In an episode of Trumpton (1967), for instance, Mr Munnings the printer presides over a very fully-realised if anachronistic hand-operated press, which he rightly celebrates in song. These are the lyrics:

I line up all the letters with spaces in between
And clamp them in the printing press, a wonderful machine.
Posters are in capitals, bold and fat and tall
But the printing in the Daily News is often rather small.
Now the inky roller comes down the type and back
And makes the letters ready to be printed clear and black.
I check the pile of paper, for every single sheet
will be printed by the inky type with letters clear and neat.
When they have a Flag Day, I print the little flags,
notices and labels, and even paper bags.
I make the letters stand up straight and keep the paper clean
Then the job will be as good as anyone has seen.

How long ago that all seems!

But it’s not just the ‘Flag Day’ reference that dates Mr Munning’s encomium to his medium. It’s the attitude towards printing more generally. There’s a sort of artisan pride here in the physical facts of printing, a haptic sensibility that rejoices as much in the ‘inky roller’ and its hypnotic movement, the ‘inky type’ and its inevitable conflict with the ‘clean’ paper, as in the finished product itself, that lends even the printing of paper bags (‘even paper bags’) a certain mystique, perhaps even a pride in the printers’ role as hierophants of a literacy essential as much to the cohesion of modern communities as it is to their economic and intellectual well-being. The effect, in any event, is a kind of technologically-dependent glamour which no desktop laser printer or iPhone screen could hope to match. And there’s a sense in which all of that is a story very much at home in London, which would suit this gallery space.

So I was by no means surprised when my son expressed a wish to examine the Museum of London’s press more closely — to see how it actually worked, what it actually did. Yet we could find no information in the display about how the press was operated, what sort of people used it and for what purpose, where it might have been housed or how it came to survive. Perhaps such information was present, and we simply failed to find it. Either way, although a ‘real’ artifact, it felt very much as if the press had been relegated to a support for a series of film projections, an actual backdrop for virtual content, an irrelevance ironically recycled to fit the needs of contemporary display culture.

In the event, then, I did what I could to talk my son through how the old press might have worked, miming how the hand-lever came down. These were lessons half-remembered, it occurs to me now, from my own childhood experiences at the much-derided Colonial Williamburg, where the print-shop offered up not only the intoxicating linseed-oil odours of ink but that marvellously resonant squelching sound that happens when inked type meets dry sheet, and the sight of the type itself sitting neatly in its boxes. He went away vaguely satisfied, if perhaps a little disappointed. I’d have happily put this down to eccentricity on our part, by the way, had I not noticed, as we walked past later, a father taking his two girls through precisely the same routine, miming that same action with the hand-lever. No one, as far as I could see, was very interested in the virtual ‘spewing’ going on overhead.

Museums — or at least the better sort of museums — are fortunate in possessing actual objects, not just images of them. Why not play on this, not least now, when a universe of images is as close as any digital touch-screen? Why not, as far as that goes, make up a display that shows, step by step, how far journalism in London has travelled, from those Civil War era chapbooks to Wapping, taking in along the way the apprentices and their riots, radical literature, developments in typography and design, libel law, Dickens doing court reporting, W. T. Stead, Fleet Street, long lunches, the BBC, Spanish practices, electronic media, Murdoch, Guido Fawkes?

The problem, I think, is that such a display would involve chronology, a bit of persistence and might possibly bore people. And what right-thinking public collection, especially one in receipt of £20 million in public funds, would wish to do that?

Marks of weakness, marks of woe
There are other display failures to be encountered as one moves through the Galleries of Modern London, a few of which might as well be noted as more broadly representative.

Many reviewers, for instance, have expressed wonder and delight at the mocked-up Georgian Pleasure Garden. Clearly, a great deal of work has been put into creating what is, I suppose, the most obviously sensational spectacle that the Galleries of Modern London presently offer us. In a mostly-darkened room, mannequins wear period costume. But are the costumes actually old, or made by famous present-day designers such as the late Alexander McQueen or Philip Treacy, or what? The signage is confusing, and in any event, the lighting is so determinedly crepuscular that all detail is lost. Meanwhile, projections on the walls depict characters interacting in this notional Pleasure Garden — a transvestite, a Muslim, all sorts of colourful characters. But on what basis? Are these real, documented encounters, or present-day fantasies, or something else entirely?

Perhaps it didn’t matter much, though, since while a few of the younger children seemed unnerved by the space, most adults stood staring dumbly at the projections, apparently robbed of all initiative or genuine curiously, as people generally do when placed in the dark and confronted with a film. Eventually, the film began to repeat and they drifted off. What did they take away from the experience? I doubt that most could have named one actual London pleasure garden, let alone have described the sort of entrepreneurial initiatives underpinning them, when they began and ended, the logic of some of the social interactions depicted in the film, even the actual services and experiences available in the actual pleasure gardens of eighteenth century London. I doubt that they actually learned almost anything true about London pleasure gardens on the basis of this experience. But then they’d been entertained for a few more minutes, while neatly demonstrating as they did so the extent to which those pleasure gardens, with their casual entertainments and random encounters, find their logical successor in a place like the Museum of London itself. That, I suppose, is an achievement of a sort.

And by a similar token, perhaps the chief point made by the room celebrating Charles Booth’s pioneering survey into life and labour in London is that the British no longer deserve their reputation as a nation of people who know how to queue properly. As there’s only one display screen in the room, the curious visitor is thus forced to spend many minutes watching as the well-intentioned couple in front seek to keep order amongst increasingly fractious toddlers while at the same time pawing their way round the map in an ineffectual search for some half-remembered corner of south London where Grandpa might or might not have lived, only to be pipped to the post, once the couple and offspring had departed on their bad-tempered way, no wiser regarding Grandpa’s sometime domicile, by a batch of bored teenagers who simply want to run the map as far towards any of its margins as possible, paying no attention to those careful gradations of privilege and poverty, depravity and decorum, barging their way in before those of us who’d been waiting for what eventually came to seem rather a long time indeed.

Once the organisers had decided to focus on interactive media here, it occurred to me as I waited, they might have done rather more to consider how interaction might happen in practice. Would three screens, one on each wall of the little space, have been too extravagant? In the end, my son and I discovered that our own patch of Soho, while ‘poor’ according to the map, was at least neither ‘very poor’ nor indeed ‘semi-criminal’ — although since the room only shows a single (1886?) version of the map, it’s impossible to learn from it the perhaps more interesting fact that Booth’s slightly later (1898-99) version of the map shows our street as ‘mixed – some comfortable, others poor’ — a mild form of gentrification caught in its tracks, as it were.

But then it’s hard to grasp from this display the complexity, depth and sustained nature of Booth’s great project — the different types of sources he used, the subtlety with which he tried to portray the metropolis — just as it’s hard to grasp the fact that late Victorian London was a city very much in flux, with immigration (both from within the UK and beyond its borders), new ways of working and living altering social boundaries with astonishing rapidity. Nor, as far as that goes, does the room — those large walls notwithstanding — ever show any version of Booth’s map in its totality, allowing one to discern physical concentrations of poverty and wealth. Instead, while the room in lined in sheets from the map, they are pasted up randomly, often at rakish angles, far-distant fragments of London thrown together for purely aesthetic reasons. The result, while visually striking, is anything but informative. Hence one stands, waiting for access to that single screen, a glimpse of one’s own atomised part of London, deprived of context or proper engagement.

This isn’t just criticism for its own sake, either. If there’s a big story to be told about what has happened to London over the past three centuries, much of that narrative hinges on London’s spectacular rates of growth, its mind-boggling complexity and cultural diversity, the way in which its public and private spaces either differentiated or integrated its ever-expanding, polyglot, cosmopolitan population. It’s hard to write this theme off as somehow lacking present-day relevance, just as it’s hard to see how an emphasis on it would fail to involve both tourists and present-day Londoners. But although the material is actually there to support such a story, the plot-line is never developed. At one end of the galleries there’s a spectacular dress of brocaded silk, woven in Spitalfields c. 1751 when the Huguenot traditions were still very much alive there — and at the other end there’s a burqa. If there’s anything to be drawn from that, it is very much left up to the initiative of each individual visitor, a state of affairs which might or might not be preferable to e.g. the heavy-gauge fabric-related symbolism of Yinka Shonibare, coming soon, it appears, to a square near us.

But then that’s another thing that the new galleries miss — London’s richly-textured localism. This isn’t a minor point, either. However one gets to know our city — through history, literature, biography, film, the lyrics of Kinks songs, whatever — the fact remains that London is less a single entity than a linked conglomeration of towns, villages and hamlets, each with its distinctive character, social mores and topography, so that to miss the point that there is, say, a difference between Soho and Mayfair, Whitechapel and Finchley, Isleworth and Islington is to miss a reality of London as basic now as it was a century or three ago. Granted, it isn’t entirely clear how this could be achieved, although clearer labelling of objects, more maps and more simple geographical explanation probably would help.

The lack of such local content, however, is surely part of what gives some of these rooms a slightly unreal, generic, superficial feeling. Perhaps some of the organisers felt that too much specificity would merely confuse, rather than inform. London is, on the other hand, often a confusing place, as much for its long-term residents as its visitors. A little more courage in enacting this would not, perhaps, have gone amiss.

Lunching with history
Let’s not be too negative, though, about the display strategies employed in the Galleries of Modern London. In places, the result is genuinely arresting.

The ‘Victorian Walk‘, for instance — a gallery semi-replicating an arcade of Victorian offices and shop fronts, all made up out of buildings demolished in the 1960s and 70s — is both atmospheric and involving, the sort of space that stimulates imaginative curiousity and raises interesting questions. The very elaborate urinal, indeed, is almost as mesmerising as the toy shop with its envy-inducing Noah’s Ark and slightly forlorn-looking dolls. The temptation to inject Jack the Ripper content seems to have been transcended with admirable ease. My son also loved the rotary-dial telephone in a later exhibit — something which seemed incomprehensible to me, at least until I realised he’d never encountered this marvel of antiquity before. For indeed, there should be a warning at the front of these galleries: ‘some of these displays may make visitors feel rather old’.

Another source of pleasure is the increased space the Museum of London now has available for art exhibitions. The Museum not only has a strong collection in its own right — strong in art-historical terms, I mean, as well as the more specifically topographical ones — and has managed to link up with worthwhile contemporary artists and their projects. If the new space allows more of this in the future, then that’s a cause for celebration. Visual art is something that London has, for a few centuries now, been doing far better than it tends to realise. The more the Museum of London can do to improve this sorry state of affairs, so much the better.

And finally, while we’re doling out praise, the interpretive staff at the Museum of London are also, it must be said, notably good at what they do.

One ebullient gallery worker, for instance, having charmed my son earlier by talking to him about all the really nasty icky things one might have found in 1850s-type London drinking water, tried to interest him in the Second World War room — not realising that he’s actually slightly phobic of anything involving the Blitz, including gas masks, searchlights and wailing sirens, all of them very much in evidence here. ‘I’m afraid he’s not really that keen on wartime things,’ I half-apologised, shepherding my increasingly alarmed-looking child out towards the next gallery — because, of course, the logic of flow here is such that one simply cannot easily avoid individual rooms. The gallery worker’s face suddenly went very solemn. ‘Well, he’s right,’ she said, simply. ‘The war was a terrible time for London. It must have been very frightening to live through it.’

I liked the gallery worker very much for taking my son’s anxiousness so seriously, for cutting through the whole jolly entertainment vibe to admit that history could be dark, violent and incredibly sad. It was only later that it occurred to me to contrast this attitude with everything else that was present in those displays. Admittedly, maybe ‘everything’ isn’t entirely accurate here. There was one other exhibit my son really didn’t like — a mid-eighteenth century prison cell from the Wellclose debtors’ prison, a smallish wooden space positively covered with carvings left by former inmates — the demotic, low-budget version of the Beauchamp Tower at the Tower of London. There was nothing gory or explicitly frightening about it. Like the other exhibits, there wasn’t a huge amount of information about it. But the little cell did, somehow, still project a hopelessness so frank and total that even a five-year old could hardly miss it. I don’t think he really ever understood what it was – and he totally refused to stand inside the cell with me. But it somehow made an impression all the same.

Elsewhere, though, there’s a sort of glib superficiality which takes the edge off that other side of London life — the real poverty, loneliness amid this metropolis of so many millions of souls, the squalour of everyday violence. Terrorism, for instance — another tiresomely long-running theme of London life, from the Cato Street conspiracy and the Clerkenwell bombing of 1867 to the Irish Republican campaigns of the 1970s and 80s and the radical Islamist attacks of 7 July 2005 — crops up here and there, without any great sense of engagement. A surprising amount of space is given to the suffrage movement, including film of the June 1913 Derby running on a loop, together with film of miscellaneous suffragette demonstrations and Emily Davison’s funeral — but in a sense the film is just as decorative as all the little pins and badges are. We glance, either recognising what we see or simply scanning swiftly the incomprehensible series of images before moving on. I think we’re supposed to applaud the suffragettes, to view their sacrifices as heroic rather than wrong-headed, but even that remains unclear. Reduced to spectacle, the film of a woman killing herself has become a sort of wallpaper, an adjunct to other entertainments, a minor diversion.

The notion that London’s history of radicalism had (and has) a dark side — that the ground separating the progressive activist from the criminal nuisance is still very much debatable territory — hardly occurs. And this, once again, is a pity. In truth, most of what is best about London — its complexity, its tolerance, its willingness to let individuals go about their business — always does have a dark side, as worthy of acknowledgement as the pretty period-pieces conjured up by frocks, half-penny ephemera and all the other miscellaneous extrusions of popular culture. To miss this is, once again, to conjure up a city of dreams that even its long-term inhabitants would hardly know. It is to invoke a city without danger, without darkness: a London perpetually ‘all bright and glittering in the smokeless air’, as it were.

But particularly in those final rooms, as we draw ever closer to the present — our contemporary condition represented, perhaps, by the cafe, in which the range of interactive experiences on offer culminates in the welcome opportunity to purchase a cup of coffee and slice of chocolate cake — the mood is sunny indeed.

And in a sense, this is entirely understandable. There’s no point, clearly, in producing a narrative when we don’t know how the story is going to end. Instead, what we’re given is an ever-faster-flowing stream of objects luscious or quotidian, the sort of things that 40-something Londoners will recognise with amusement and small children will regard with varying degrees of wonder and perplexity. There is quite a lot about record album sleeves and teen magazines, for instance — both of these a conceptual leap for the young, one imagines. There is rather less about welfare provision, education, policing, scientific discovery or sport. Fashion, because it is itself a mode of display, is well-represented, as is advertising and merchandising — religion, economics and politics rather less so.

This latter point was brought home to me when, in one of those coincidences that always look improbable the minute one seeks to convert them into prose, my son and I ended up sitting only a couple of seats away in the cafe from Ken Livingstone, also dining en famille that bank holiday Monday. Here, at last, was an exhibit, albeit an impromptu one, which really engaged with London’s political and cultural history — whole decades of experimentation with different schemes of local government, the vexed relations both with Conservative and Labour governments, the endless demos in front of the South African embassy, peace marches and the Poll Tax riot, problems with public transport and private affairs, campaigns in the London Evening Standard and gags in Private Eye, rumours that don’t always make it into the papers, radicalism, cynicism, pragmatism, the inexorable passage of historical time — all of this summed up in the person of one nondescript looking oldish man, attempting to keep the peace amongst a small group of likeable children, all looking rather tired.

But this reminded me — had the Galleries of Modern London had anything much to say about London’s local government, in its various incarnations as the LCC, the GCL or our present GLA? Not that I noticed — although perhaps, amid all those distractions, we’d simply missed it. After all that spectacle, I suppose that we were getting a bit tired, too.

By way of a Postscript
Recently, in his new online journal — a more than worthy successor to the great artblog.net, which is saying a lot — American artist and critic Franklin Einspruch re-engaged with the vexed issue of what comes next for the world of the visual arts now that postmodernism is more or less over. The piece is worth reading in its entirety, here, but as I read it a few hours after my recent visit to the Museum of London, a few lines in particular jumped out at me.

Having quoted from a review of a graduate student art show characterised as a ‘celebration of sensation’, Einspruch continues:

You get the idea. There are more environments to walk through, buttons to press, recordings to listen to, and videos to watch. Since someone has to label the new movement by insulting it, I hereby christen it Interactionism. It will not result in any great art — it will never summon the necessary internal pressure — but it will have the advantage of being engaging, if often in a contrived way. Where modernism was elitist and postmodernism was arch, Interactionism will be populist. Why are people waiting in line for upwards to eight hours for an opportunity to requite Marina Abramovic’s stare? Why did the Starn twins build a jungle gym on the roof of the Met? They are bringing on the Interactionist future. Its fundamentally non-critical nature will dishonor postmodernism like modernism never could, although postmodernism laid the groundwork for it, just as modernism did for postmodernism.

To this, I can only add that as the lines that once separated the various subcategories of the all-embracing entertainment industry continue to blur, Interactionism and its tendencies may not be confined to the visual arts alone.

Before we end, however, let’s consider one more memory from the visit I made with my son to the Galleries of Modern London just over a week ago. After our hectic voyage through the new display spaces, having consumed a pleasant lunch in close proximity to Mr Livingstone, we then made our way, at my son’s instigation, back to the older galleries, and in particular, London Before London — which is to say, aurochs and arrowheads, as previously mentioned.

Like everything else in the Museum of London that day, the rooms dealing with London’s pre-history were thronged with visitors. The gallery workers were out in force, attempting to interest toddlers in skulls and shards. Here and there, indeed, an interactive screen exerted its usual bland allure.

But at their heart, for all their liveliness and colour, these earlier galleries still have something didactic, sober and serious about them. It is possible, travelling through them, to learn quite a lot about London’s prehistory. I write this with some confidence, indeed, for much of my working knowledge of prehistoric London has been acquired in them. The visitor is led, patiently, though different ages of human achievement, different styles of artefacts, different types of habitation and social organisation. The displays, while clear and visually striking — for how can the huge horns of an auroch fail to impress? — are less spectacular than instructive. Perhaps best of all, though, are the labels on the objects, explaining where they all came from — Aldwych, World’s End, Wallbrook, even the environs of Heathrow Airport, the list is long, absorbing and increasingly surreal, as in the case of the mammoth’s tooth found in Whitehall. Our London — our sometimes boring, often inconvenient and irksome London — was once a very different place altogether. At one level, of course, this could hardly be less obvious. But on another, surely it could hardly be more magical?

Their lack of nonstop flashy interactivity and stunning spectacle notwithstanding, my son loves these rooms. Largely, this is because, being a five year old boy, he feels confident that knapping flints, forming pots out of clay and wandering through reed-beds is considerably more interesting than most of what present-day Londoners do all day. He has a point — especially as for a five-year old, the notion of a 30-year average life expectancy isn’t particularly daunting.

Even so, I love these rooms, too. The point isn’t simply their educational qualities, grateful though I am and ought to be for those. There is more to it than that. It has something to do with what I love about London itself — its age, its continuities, its weird half-conscious elisions.

I was trying, a minute ago, to explain this to myself, when I remembered a poem I had loved in my early teens, around the time when I first visited the Museum of London. As generally happens with the best accounts of London, it was created by an immigrant, in this case a Welshman. Dylan Thomas wrote the poem — A refusal to mourn the death, by fire, of a child in London — towards the end of the Second World War, most of which he had spent hanging around Fitzrovia and Soho, occupying his time between sessions in the Wheatsheaf by doing a bit of writing and broadcasting for the BBC. The occasion was, I think, pretty much what the title suggests it ought to be. War is, as the gallery worker agreed, a terrible thing.

It is possible to hear Thomas himself reading the poem in question, possibly in over-full declamatory mode, here, and of course like any decent poem it loses virtually everything through selective quotation. Still, for what it’s worth, these are the lines that say the thing I want to say, lines which I can still recite from memory:

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

This is, in other words, a London of superimposed strata, a landscape of graves and poetry — the city at its most challenging yet also its most comforting, if only because so very little happens here that has not happened before, or will not happen again someday, whether we realise it or not. It is a London that seems very real to me in the Museum of London’s prehistoric galleries, here amongst these cases of actual things, once handled by actual people, recovered from named places. Yet it is a London that seems far more distant when I’m downstairs in the new £20 million Galleries of Modern London. And for that reason alone, despite the praise they have garnered and the well-intentioned entertainment they clearly provide for many who flock to enjoy it, these seem to me to be something less than the thing that they might have been.

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9 Comments

Filed under history, London, reviews

9 responses to “On the Museum of London’s new galleries

  1. neil

    I always thought there was a slight irony to visiting the Museum of London when there is so much of the city itself to witness and feel immediately outside its walls…

  2. “If one enters these galleries already armed with an enormous wealth of information regarding the 300 years which they seek to evoke, one might well go away pleasantly by some incidental encounter with one or two of the thousands of marvellous objects the Museum of London possesses. Otherwise, though, what does one take away? Scattered impressions.”

    “It’s all very entertaining, very lively, very welcoming for those whose children have extremely truncated attention-spans, very congenial for those whose intellectual processes run more to Twitter than the Survey of London.”

    Both these sentences are very telling, and worrying. Not just for this museum, of course, but for all museums, galleries and exhibition spaces built/renovated in the future. Most visitors will not be professional historians or even amateur historical readers. Most will school children in groups, adolescents with their parents, tourists and locals looking for an entertaining and educational tour.

    Truncated attention spans and little familiarity with books will become universal. I am not sure what museums and galleries can do, except to grab young peoples’ attention with razzle dazzle and then entertain and educate the young people as best they can, for however many minutes as the attention span lasts – 3 minutes per item?

    Museums have tried the experiental approach with some success. You know what I mean: “Dear student, imagine you live and work in the East End of London during Jack the Ripper’s reign. Now walk down this darkened lane alone. Keep watching all around you. Are you very scared?”

    That approach might help the student understand how it felt to be a potential Jack the Ripper victim, but he/she still might not grasp the connection to poverty, nutrition, sewers, public transport, public health, the impact of alcohol, the status of women and a heap of other important topics.

  3. Grungebucket

    I’m afraid I don’t quite get your point with this article. Museums are paid for by the public and need to reflect the wishes of the public with regard to the experience they provide. Stuffy halls of knowledge are worthless if the only people who go there are the historically-minded ‘elite’ who believe they are a cut above Joe Public.

    I visited these new galleries last week and one thing was very noticeable – they were full of people who would not normally choose a museum as a place to visit and they all seemed very happy indeed with the experience.

    The Museum of London has to innovate or die – it cannot compete on the same terms as the big national museums, it is in an ugly concrete pile floating in the sky in the corner of nowhere. Its funding is on a knife edge. Without a USP and serious popular appeal its future has to be very uncertain indeed.

    For me the new galleries reflect London as it is – chaotic, random, noisy and full of visual, auditory and tactile stimulation. That is modern life and the clock cannot be turned back however desirable that may seem to some oldies…

  4. There’s another side of all of this, of course. For all I know, complaints about the truncated attention spans of today’s generation probably date back to Juvenal at the very least. There never was a golden age in which everyone shunned frivolous entertainment in favour of specialist monographs, any more than there was an age in which museum curators were blind to the allure of spectacle (Elgin Marbles, anyone?) or where the demands of popular appeal weren’t to some degree in tension with the more rarefied pleasures of high scholarship.

    In short, I don’t think it’s ever been easy to make the perfect museum. To that extent, the staff at the Museum of London deserve a great deal of credit for making a spirited try — one which, even if it didn’t quite ‘work’ for me, clearly pleases a substantial swathe of the population — in all seriousness, no mean feat, and one worthy of celebration.

    Just to underscore an indirect point which I might, perhaps, have made more directly above, though, insofar as there’s a problem here, it probably has to do with the nature of public funding for cultural institutions. Once upon a time it was just about possible for public funding to subsidise elite interests, the demands of which were articulated in mandarin tones by the likes of Lord Clark, Alfred H. Barr Jr., etc., on the basis that there was nothing in particular to prevent the great unwashed public from rising to the challenge of educated amateurism and advanced taste. Now, though, for all sorts of reasons, that apparently won’t do. Enterprises funded by the public now somehow need to exert some sort of more or less direct appeal to the public. Does that inevitably mean ‘dumbing down’? Possibly not — but it practice, it often does seem to mean precisely that. And no, I don’t think that’s a very good thing at all.

    A few specific replies:

    Neil, that irony should be lost on no one. All I’d say is that, on a good day, a museum can help us see layers of meaning in what’s outside the museum anyway — making what’s outside the museum even better.

    Hels, many thanks for the thoughtful comment. I do see that the whole ’empathy’ thing can work very well indeed — the only problem is that without a fund of basic background knowledge, attempting to elicit historical empathy is, as your example implies, making bricks without straw. Hence the need to combine a bit of the ‘boring’ knowledge stuff with the showier side of display tactics. But somehow I suspect we agree on that already.

    Finally, Grungebucket, thanks for taking the time to comment, altough, pace your first line, I suspect you do very much get my point in this article, and simply disagree with it!

    Well, doubtless you are in a majority — and to be fair, my article repeatedly pointed out that many people were enjoying the museum during my visit, that there’s nothing wrong with entertaining people, and that the logic of public funding does, naturally, tend towards this sort of thing.

    The one thing I’d say to you, by way of further elaboration, is that of course there is no reason why all museums (or cultural experiences more broadly, as far as that goes) ought necessarily to be funded primarily through taxation — plenty aren’t, even now — with the possibility, I suppose, that there’s space out there both for the crowd-pleasers and for ‘elite’ experiences, which is probably how it ought to be, choice being yet another feature of the ‘modern life’ you describe.

    (Do you really never find time, though, for silence, solitude, reflection, contemplation and stillness? If so, no wonder we see things rather differently.)

  5. Wonderfully enlightening post, which made me appreciate my home city even more than the huge amount I already do. I’d really love to read a book by you about London.

  6. Gareth, you really do say the kindest things — thanks. (Although, as far as that goes, couldn’t you fit in a book about London yourself once you’ve finished those memoirs I’m always nagging you to write?)

  7. neil

    obviously the approach required to leave the “average” punter with the immediate perception that they have been entertained and informed (to the extent that their entertainment isn’t undermined) may be poles apart from what is required to embue a visitor with the necessary knowledge and understanding in order to genuinely enrich their experience of the real exhibit beyond the confines of the museum.

    ie your article implies that “poles apart” may equate to slightly fake or shallow.

    Umberto Eco’s essay on Disneyland in Travels in Hyperreality explores some of these issues further…

  8. Thanks for the comment, Neil. The whole issue of ‘fakes’ and ‘authenticity’ in the context of museum display is a fascinating one, and one on which Eco doubtless has interesting things to say.

    As your reference reminds me, I really need to try Eco again one of these days. Unfortunately the first thing I read by him was The Name of the Rose — and the last thing, too, as at the time, anyway, that fat little volume struck me as self-indulgent, over-clever and at the same time obscurely patronising. Now, however, I wonder whether the translation wasn’t simply rather weak, whether the rapturous critical and popular reception the book received wasn’t getting on my nerves slightly, and also whether I wouldn’t have been better off trying the essays instead — which, since I’m awfully fond of Borges, wouldn’t have been such a leap.

  9. P.S. As a sort of footnote to the actual post, it’s worth noting, if one bothers to seek out ‘Museum of London’ on Twitter, how many of the exhibits singled out for particular praise are simply wrong: ‘the Victorian pleasure garden’ (err, Georgian, surely?), ‘the gold lift from the Savoy’ (ahem, the considerably more demotic Selfridges, perhaps?) The point, again, isn’t grumpiness as an end in itself — rather, it’s while people are enjoying these new galleries (a good thing) they are also coming away with false impressions regarding what they have seen. In short, entertainment as an aid to education is one thing, entertainment as an impediment to education is another. Whatever anyone else may say, I still think an opportunity has been missed.