Tag Archives: Museum of London

Great Fire at the Museum of London

I’ve not yet seen the Museum of London’s new Fire! Fire! exhibition, but I did speak to curator Meriel Jeater for a preview in the current issue of World of Interiors.

Jeater told me that a section of the exhibition would look at the conspiracy theories about who started the fire. Some felt that such a devastating conflagration had to have some supernatural origin, so blamed a God angered by London’s heroic capacity for fornication and greed, and its execution of Charles I. Others blamed a more corporeal other in the form of the Catholics, with a Frenchman, the obviously disturbed Robert Hubert, helpfully confessing to arson.

He was hanged and for almost 100 years a plaque (pictured below) was on the wall at Pudding Lane claiming that “here by the permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous papists”. It was eventually taken down because so many people were stopping to look it traffic could not pass. For years after, people continued to claim responsibility, such as one man who insisted who was inspired by the devil and would do so again, and a boy who said he started the fire with the help of his uncle.

original

The exhibition will feature this plaque, while also looking at the history of fire in London – a resident in 1170 insisted that the “only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires” and there were half-a-dozen major fires in the 17th century before 1666. It will then cover how the fire spread and how it was tackled. Numerous artefacts recovered from rubble-filled cellars will go on display, along with contemporary letters by Londoners about the fire. Finally, the exhibition the reconstruction of London, looking at the various plans, the new building regulations and then the reality of how London was finally rebuilt. Illustrating all this will be lots and lots of maps. “It’s hard to get your head round it,” said Jeater. “You look at it and wonder how people coped, how London was put back together again.”

The Black Museum at the Museum Of London

The Museum of London’s new exhibition is undoubtedly something of a coup. Crime Museum Uncovered features around 600 items from the Met Police’s private museum, once known as the Black Museum but now renamed the Crime Museum. I visited the Crime Museum at Room 101 in Scotland Yard several years ago and wrote about the experience here.

What’s fascinating is the differences between the way a public museum like the MoL treats the same objects as the police museum. The shelf above is from Scotland Yard. It is located in an ante room before the museum proper and contains a selection of weapons seized on the streets of London, and above that a dozen or so death masks taken of the heads of executed prisoners. This is pretty much the first thing visitors to the museum will see and the ensemble is like a whack on the head with a cosh. It says London is full of criminals, this is how they will try to kill you and this is what we will do to them when they are caught.

At the MoL, the same material is treated much more sensitively. Only six or so weapons are exhibited, and these are placed neatly in a clean glass box rather than scattered higgledy-piggledy over an old table. The heads are also on exhibition, but some distance removed from the weapons, creating a disconnection between crime and punishment.

That is, perhaps, the only way the MoL could present this exhibition. I’ve said before that the Crime Museum as curated by the police is entirely inappropriate for the public and I’m not entirely sure it’s appropriate for the police as it is deliberately created to cultivate an air of suspicion bordering on the paranoid, a repeated insistence that the streets are not safe for policeman, that anybody could be out to kill you, using anything from an umbrellas to a telephone. It’s an attitude that goes some way towards explaining the deaths of numerous Londoners at the hands of the police.

The MoL also has to fill in some of the blanks at Scotland Yard. The Crime Museum is ostensibly a teaching museum  – it shows coppers the history of crimes and how they have been solved. But the cases at Scotland Yard contain little explanatory detail – that is provided orally by the curator. At the MoL, by contrast, there is a fairly thorough, detached but instructive look at a selection of important crimes, showing what they have revealed about forensics, police procedures, detective work and criminality (many of the cases, too many, concern crimes against women). They also touch on several of the most significant crimes of the era, including the Krays, the Richardson, Derek Bentley, Dr Crippen, Christie and the Acid Bath Murderers. It’s all very carefully selected and brilliantly explained, with items well chosen to both inform and occasionally horrify. This is easily the best part of the exhibition.

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

Gloves worn by John Haigh to dissolve the body of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, 1949 © Museum of London

The MoL then breaks away from these individual crimes to look at broader themes, such as concealed weapons, drugs, forgery, armed robbery and espionage. While the focus on individual crimes does not include anything from after 1975 to avoid distress to victims’ relatives – which means the infamous Dennis Nilsen cooking pot isn’t on show thankfully – the exhibits on broader themes go right up to the present day. That is largely so they can show items related to the July 2005 bombings in the form of reconstructions of the homemade rucksack bombs, something I found particularly unnecessary as these weren’t even from the crime scenes, which is a core part of the Crime Museum’s relevance. Authenticity is absolutely vital here – it is the raison d’etre of the entire collection – and if the items are not original, you leave yourself open to accusations of Chamber of Horrors style ghoulishness.

It’s a rare misstep from an otherwise sensitive exhibition, that ends with an excellent film in which policeman, curators, crime victims and professors discuss crime, the museum and its role in police life.

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence, 1905 © David Gill/Museum of London

So that’s all good, but I still came out of the Museum of London exhibition with mixed feelings.

It goes right back to the start. The exhibition begins with a “reconstruction” of the original Victorian museum. But this is a reconstruction in the very loosest sense – basically, it means the items are old but they are being presented in a very modern way. That is far removed not only from the Victorian museum but also from the contemporary Scotland Yard museum, which does not look, feel or smell modern at all. The Crime Museum is old-fashioned, cluttered, chaotic and deeply depressing, and a genuine piece-by-piece reconstruction, or even a photograph of the current Scotland Yard museum, would have been a real benefit, as otherwise it’s impossible to discern the peculiar atmosphere of the place. Without it, the MoL are sanitising not just the nature of crime – which is excusable – but also the nature of policing, which is not. That after all goes to the heart of what the Crime Museum is about, who it is for and what that means to Londoners, and it’s something that is entirely absent from this exhibition – the one hint comes from the only item relating to the long history of riots in London, which is a police shield from Broadwater Farm that’s been burnt by a petrol bomb. What does that tell you about the way the police regard these inner city riots?

The Museum of London have produced a fascinating, thoughtful and thought-provoking reimagining of the Crime Museum’s contents that explores the nature of crime and law enforcement in London, but it does not tell the full story of the Crime Museum. I imagine Scotland Yard will be very pleased about that indeed.

The South will rise again: trivial recruits needed

I have agreed to captain a South London team in Londonist‘s Londoner Challenge at the Museum of London.

To spare me complete humiliation at the hands of teams from the North, East and West, please apply to join my team so the South can come an apologetic third. Details here.

Dickens And London at the Museum of London

This review was published in the Independent last week but has not surfaced online.

It’s going to be hard to avoid Charles Dickens in the next few months. The writer will be everywhere, as publishers, programmers and producers commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 7, 2012. The best celebration of Dickens’s legacy could be this illuminating exhibition at the Museum of London. It’s an imaginative look at a familiar subject, and represents the best of what a museum can do.

This is no staid trawl through Dickens’s back catalogue but a vivid evocation of Victorian life based around themes from his books, from poverty to innovation. Sure, the big objects like Dickens’s writing desk or his manuscript for Great Expectations are there to grab the attention, but this drama is complemented by Victorian minutiae, the fascinating bric-a-brac of everyday life, everything from rent arrears books and mourning wands (wooden sticks carried by footmen ahead of funeral processions) to clay pipes, Punch and Judy puppets, model trains and Dickens’s soup ladle.

The exhibition is more than objects. There are mournful photographs of Victorian buildings that Dickens wrote about but have since disappeared, and a short film by William Raban that meanders around modern London while an actor recites Night Walks, Dickens’s essay about the sleeping city, drawing subtle parallels between his time and our own. The film is a rare chance to wallow in Dickens’s own voice, but neither this nor the manuscripts are quite as impressive as Dickens’s reading copy of Oliver Twist. This is the book he used on reading tours towards the end of his life; words and sentences are underlined for emphasis, and melodramatic stage directions (‘Action’, ‘mystery’, ‘terror to the end’) are scrawled in the margins.

The Strand, Looking Eastwards from Exeter Change, London

Most rewarding of all, though, is the art. There’s classically sentimental Victoriana, such as William MacDuff’s Shaftesbury, which shows two urchins looking in a shop window like something by Norman Rockwell. There’s the fascinating documentary sketches of George Scharf’s, who drew the people he saw on streets acting as human advertisements, in colourful costume and carrying eye-catching signs for shows and products. And there are many detailed depictions of Victorian street life, which owe a clear debt to Hogarth. Phoebus Levin’s ‘Covent Garden Market’, Caleb Robert Stanley’s ‘The Strand, Looking Eastwards From Exeter Change’ and especially Edmund John Niemann’s ‘Buckingham Street’ portray a city of energetic bustle, cobbled streets and vicious contrasts of wealth that are the visual embodiment of what we still call Dickensian London.

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN (020 7001 9844). Until June 10, 2012. Admission £8 (£7 advance booking); concs £6 (£5 advance booking).

Buckingham Street, Strand, London

London’s mapping renaissance

The growth of online mapping – as seen by the excellent London Mapping website, which collects some of the best digital maps around – has not meant the end of paper maps.

Image of Untamed London

I’ve mentioned Herb Lester‘s lovely themed maps before with reference to their 1960s map of London’s West End, Wish You Were There, and they continue to add new maps to their range, branching into different cities and themes while maintaining an impeccable eye for design. Untamed London, for nature-lovers, is their latest offering.

I’ve also finally got my hands on the Museum of London’s Londonium map and it is hugely impressive. This has been produced by MOLAS, the Museum of London Archeological Service, and is a huge map of the City, with the Roman topography superimposed over a plan of the contemporary city – a little like a paper version of the technology used for the Time Travel Explorer app.

Key Roman finds are listed, with an explanation of what they are and how they can be accessed, while the reverse side has a potted history of Roman London, with many illustrations. The map is printed on good thick paper so won’t tear easily (a constant problem for frequently folded paper maps), and works beautifully as both a decorative item and a practical plan for hunting down the existing remains of Londonium.

It costs just £6.25 and should it prove to be a big seller – which I imagine it will – I hope the Museum can persuade their friends at MOLA to produce more maps along the same lines.

One for the Olympic Park at around this time next year, perhaps?

Mudlarking

Last winter, I went mudlarking on the Thames shore. This is an edited version of the article I subsequently wrote for Eurostar (image below from Knowledge Of London).

You’ll see them at low tide, wandering alone with bent necks along the damp and desolate mudflats of the Thames. These are the mudlarks: amateur archaeologists, beachcombers and scavengers who delight in rediscovering lost detritus from London’s past. Although they are wearing waders and carrying metal detectors, they look much like giant birds, storks or herons, as they walk with heads bowed and eyes fixed on the floor, scrutinising the mud and pebbles for hidden treasure. They’ll occasionally scratch at the surface with an extended toe if they see something they fancy. And then they’ll pounce, darting down to peck something from the ooze, before deciding whether to add it to the day’s hoard.

The tidal Thames has been described as ‘London’s largest and richest archaeology site’ and it’s certainly the longest in the country, stretching from the Thames Barrier to Teddington Lock. For centuries, the river in central London was used by boats bringing cargo from all over the world. Thousands of people worked in these docks and warehouses, and items that have fallen from boats or pockets or been casually discarded by Tudor dockers are still lodged in the London mud, waiting to be revealed whenever the tidal river withdraws.

Mudlarks have been prowling here for centuries. In Georgian and Victorian times, they were the desperately poor searching for things to eat or sell. By the 1960s, the term referred to unofficial archaeologists who formed the Society Of Thames Mudlarks in 1980. A few years later the Port of London Authority (PLA) – the body in charge of the river – offered the mudlarks licences to dig on the foreshore in return for having their finds officially recorded by the Museum of London. The mudlarks have thus helped build an unparalleled record of everyday life on a medieval river.

Ian Smith is one of them. His patch is the north bank of the Thames between London and Southwark Bridges, outside Customs House, where pre-Victorian cargo ships would have been checked for contraband. This was once the Pool of London, the main unloading point for boats that could not fit between the pillars of old London Bridge, and a place rich in treasures. ‘I started in 1973 as a schoolboy,’ says Smith on a bracing winter morning. ‘I grew up in Battersea and saw a TV show about a man who found these old clay pipes in the Bristol Channel. So I came down to see what I could find. I spent about a year working down the river bit-by-bit until I got to Blackfriars where I saw this group of people, a little cluster of them, and I went over with my collection of pipes. And where they’d been poking about there were pipes everywhere, loads of them, they were just ignoring them and looking for other stuff. So I started chatting and that’s how I got started.’

The thick black mud of the Thames conceals rich treats, everything from prehistoric flints to Victorian toys. The mud is anaerobic – without oxygen – so preserves just about anything. Kate Sumnall works for the Museum of London and the Portable Antiquities Scheme as a Finds Liaison Officer; it is her job to manage the licence scheme and register everything the mudlarks find. She says, ‘London is different to most places in terms of the preservation and the proportion. You wouldn’t get iron daggers in a field, it would be eroded, but Thames mud is anaerobic so things don’t decay. And you also don’t have aggressive chemicals and ploughs, which damage items in the ground. You can still find medieval leather in the Thames.’

Smith believes the Thames has three other benefits. ‘London is almost unique,’ says Smith. ‘Most rivers aren’t tidal, so that’s one thing, but you’ve also got the river going through the centre of town rather than round the outside. And the third thing is that in the Victorian era all the docks got moved over to the Isle of Dogs, so that means the early stuff has been left in the ground rather than dredged away centuries ago.’

This is what makes the Thames such a popular and lucrative haunt for the mudlarks. There are around 50 with official permits, granted by the PLA after an individual has spent at least two years on the foreshore getting experience and demonstrating a history of recording their finds. ‘The mudlarks have huge value,’ says Sumnall. ‘They have sold us entire collections in the past and these have gone on to form a crucial part of the museum. But they are also immensely helpful in recording where things are discovered over time, which helps build up a bigger picture of London history.’

When Sumnall is contacted by somebody who wants to be a mudlark, she’ll often put them in touch with Smith, who has an unrivalled knowledge of the river and its secrets, knowing where to look and when. At low tide, he clambers down the steps on to the foreshore carrying the tools of his trade – a bucket and spade and a battered metal detector wrapped in waterproof plastic – to begin his hunt. After just a few minutes he returns with a 13th-century arrowhead, 16th century pipes, medieval buttons and a shard of Tudor pottery. But this is bric-a-brac to an experienced mudlark. Smith, an antiques dealer by trade, specialises in medieval pewter pilgrims badges which were sold at points of pilgrimage, but has found all sorts of things. ‘I found a hoard of forged coins from 1470,’ he says. ‘People would clip a bit of silver off the edges of coins and these forgers must have been chased so they flung the bag of coins into the river to get rid of it and I found it centuries later.’

London’s history as a world port dates back to the Roman era, which can make for interesting finds. Sumnall tells the story of a bone harpoon that they originally thought came from the Stone Age, but after carbon dating turned out to be from around 1650. ‘That really threw us, but we realised it came from a part of the foreshore where the whaling docks were located and it’s possible it came from an Arctic civilisation and arrived in London on a whaling ship. But obviously we can’t be sure.’

Another recent discovery was a 400-year-old lead toy coach, found by a London decorator, Albert Johanessen, who says his most important equipment is not a metal detector but ‘his eyes and a stout pair of wellies’. Smith possesses these, but after 40 years of mudlarking is realistic about what he’s going to find. ‘You’re never going to find treasure like the Staffordshire Hoard because nobody is going to bury gold in a river, but you find ordinary everyday stuff that people chuck away: tools, rings, badges, glass and pottery.’

You certainly find a lot of clay pipes. These carpet the foreshore in London, thousands of them dating back to the sixteenth century when tobacco was first introduced to the capital. The pipes were sold pre-filled and although they were reusable were often discarded, thrown into the river by those who worked in the docks. These 400-year-old fragments are fascinating to newcomers but to the trained eye are more like Tudor cigarette ends and rarely get taken to the museum to be registered.

But there is one Londoner who is interested. Jane Parker is a designer who last year began to collect pipes to make into necklaces and bracelets. She currently sells them on her website but hopes to get a stall at a London market soon. ‘I went to the Museum of London Docklands (in Canary Wharf) and afterwards walked to the river,’ explains Parker. ‘The tide was out so I went down on to the beach. I saw these clay pipe stems and decided I’d make something from them and started making them for friends who had left London as a momento.’

Parker doesn’t have a PLA licence, which means she can’t dig but is allowed to collect anything from the surface. With pipes that’s all she needs. At the right spot, Parker reckons she can pick up 400-500 usable pipe stems in an hour. ‘I want stems that have been pummelled by the tide, and are soft and worn at the ends. The smaller and finer, the newer they are. Some of them have a line down the middle that show they’ve been cast in a mould, while the bigger, chunkier ones are hand-made, the holes aren’t centred and they aren’t smooth.’

You can also see the fruits of the foreshore in a special display at the Museum of London devoted to items found in the river, covering everything from prehistoric axes to medieval skulls. The museum takes in around 1,000 items a year from the mudlarks and despite Smith’s belief that ‘the best times are over, so much has already been found’, Sumnell thinks there’s still plenty to discover. ‘We’re definitely finding different things,’ she says. ‘They heyday of the pilgrim badges may have passed but we’re seeing more Roman stuff than I can keep up with, especially in areas of heavy erosion. There’s still a lot of interest in mudlarks, and we’re always getting new ones.’ A new generation itching to uncover the secrets of the Thames.

Maps round-up

A quick post on maps. I have a small piece in the Independent about the Museum of London and Londonist’s forthcoming collaboration, Hand-Drawn London. This exhibition, opening on April 21, features maps drawn by Londoners.

I submitted a map drawn by four-year-old daughter of her daily walk to nursery, but it was harshly rejected. I have reproduced it here.

I have also been posting fairly regularly on maps at the Time Travel Explorer blog. Recent posts have included one on London’s first lido and another on London’s forgotten exhibition.

Stoney Jack and the Cheapside Hoard

The Cheapside Hoard is one of the great treasures of the Museum Of London. A vast collection of Tudor jewellery, it was found by two workmen in the cellar of a house on Cheapside in 1912 and eventually made its way into the museum’s collection.

The story is a fascinating one, outlined in HV Morton‘s seminal London history ‘In Search Of London’.

Morton, a journalist and insatiable London enthusiast with the knack of knowing not so much the right people as the really interesting ones, begins by describing GF Lawrence, ‘or Stoney Jack as he was known by every navvy who worked in the City’.

Stoney Jack was an asthmatic antiques dealer with a shop on West Hill, Wandsworth. He also had a job as Inspector of Acquisitions at what was then called the London Museum, based in Lancaster House, St James’s.

Since the 1970s, every building site in the UK must by law be visited by a team of archaeologists to ensure no great treasures are missed, but in Lawrence’s time there was no such requirement. Lawrence’s job then was ‘to haunt every demolition site in the City and make friends with the navvies, so that they would bring to him anything that had been found during excavation’.

Morton writes that there was a lot of building work taking place at this time and Lawrence knew it may be the last chance to find any antiquities that might still be hidden in the soil. In his not entirely public-spirited determination to ensure nothing crucial was lost, workmen received rudimentary archaeological training during ‘mysterious transactions behind hoardings and in the tap rooms of City public-houses’.

In this way, Lawrence was able to purchase items from ‘a procession of navvies with mysterious objects wrapped in spotted handkerchiefs’ and flog them on to the London Museum, earning himself a tidy profit. Anything the museum didn’t buy, went into his shop. And even if the navvies brought him something worthless, he always gave them enough cash to buy a pint of beer. In this way, he built up much of the Roman and Medieval collection that is now in the Museum of London.

Morton continues:

I cannot count the times I have been present when navvies have appeared and passed their treasures across the counter with a husky, “Any good to yer, guv’nor?” I have seen handkerchiefs unknotted to reveal Roman pins, mirrors, coins, leather, pottery and every kind of object that can lie concealed in old and storied soil.

I was with him one day when two navvies handed over a heavy mass of clay found beneath a building in Cheapside. It was like an iron football, and they said there was a lot more of it. Sticking in the clay were bright gleams of gold. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery. That was how the famous hoard of Tudor jewellery, the Cheapside Hoard, was discovered.’

Morton recalls that for this great find, now worth millions, Stoney Jack received a thousand pounds. For their part, the navvies were rewarded with ‘something like a hundred pounds each, and I was told that these man disappeared, and were not seen again for months!’

Museum of London reopening

My review of the Museum of London reopening appeared in yesterday’s Independent On Sunday. The museum has refurbished its entire collection from the Great Fire to the present day, something that necessitated closing down the lower-ground floor of the museum for four years. I’ve been on site at a number of times during the refurbishment, so had a good idea of what was intended, but was still hugely impressed (and, in a strange way, rather relieved as so many things can go wrong with these things) by the final result.

The museum now has a great blend of the old and new, with some genuinely impressive modern interactive but also loads of good old-fashioned things in cases. Check it out when it opens to the public on Friday May 28 (it is opening till 9pm on the first day). 

I suppose that a museum ideally wants the visitor feel they’ve ‘got it’ after just one visit, but not ‘got it’ so much that they won’t come back . They don’t want people to be so overwhelmed by information they can’t see what story the museum is telling, but they equally don’t want them to feel they’ve absorbed it all in one go, seen everything there is to see and so never bother returning. The Museum of London, I think, pulls off this delicate balancing act, while also being lots of fun, which is something every good museum wants and needs to be. 

Museum nerds might note that they also manage to subtly highlight a couple of their less appreciated areas of expertise – the excellent costume collection, which gets two strong displays – and their outstanding collection of oral history, which is used to tell the story of the Blitz.

I am particularly interested in oral history. These first-hand recollections from largely ordinary Londoners could be vitally important to future historians, and the museum continues to expand its collection at an impressive rate. One thing I firmly believe is that everybody has a fascinating story to tell, they just don’t always realise what it is about their lives that makes them unique and therefore interesting. Most people are too self-conscious when they write, so oral history is the best way to break down this barrier and capture those stories before they disappear forever.

Finally (and no, I’m not on the payroll), the museum also has a very good (and free) new iPhone app. Check it out here.