In the heart of the city’s business district and attached to the massive Barbican Centre complex, the Museum of London is no quiet country house. But when a museum aims to provide a comprehensive history of the largest urban area in Europe, a city centre location is surely fitting. The scope of the Museum of London is also as enormous as the city it covers: beginning some 450,000 years ago and ending roughly in the late twentieth century, it’s impossible even to do a quick walk-through of this museum in less than an hour and a half.
The galleries are roughly divided into three main areas - ancient London, Medieval London, and modern London - and within these, narrower themes serve to make sense of such huge chunks of time. “London before London,” dealing with prehistory up until the Roman invasion, predictably has a heavy focus on archaeology. Huge horned skulls, early stone tools galore, ceremonial axe-heads and preserved skeletons are on display. My favourite item was a little wooden man, a replica of the Dagenham Idol, with haunting, carved hollow eyes.
“Medieval London” is just as massive in scope - spanning 1000 years of history, including plagues, famines, various revolts, and the great fire. Here, you can wander into replica housing from 950 AD, listen to an audio-visual installation about the Black Plague, and peep into a model home interior of a seventeenth-century merchant. There is an overwhelming number of display cases, and it’s not always clear where to look next, but don’t miss the scale model of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre - incredibly detailed - or the small display on the development of printing and books.
The galleries of modern London - completely revamped in 2010 - are chock-full of displays and huge installations that emphasize London’s social divides. A room entirely papered by Charles Booth’s Map of London Poverty sits next to a lavish Art Deco lift; Suffrage paraphernalia (including suffragette stockings, banners, and the iron belts they used to chain themselves to public buildings) sit in between glamorous posters and a dark room dedicated to WWII. The final section, dealing with 1950 to the present day, fizzles out somewhat - it’s full of vintage memorabilia, but present-day London is somewhat underwhelmingly covered.
The strengths of the Museum of London are its abundance of fascinating objects on display, and their immersive period-themed environments. The eighteenth-century Pleasure Garden hall is a charming way to display a collection of period costumes - complete with video and sound clips of gossipy garden walkers. Most impressive is the Victorian Walk, with its full-sized shop windows and even a little pub to sit inside. All of it is slick, modern, and interactive: far from reading unending panels of text, the museum’s primary focus is on the visual.
The Museum is hugely kid-friendly, too, and many school groups visit during weekdays and term time. Large-print text on the information panels, and activities aimed at child's eye height make the displays accessible to younger visitors, and there is even the occasional costumed guide with an activity table ready to bring Roman London history to life.
With a collection of over two million objects - the largest archaeological archive in Europe - the Museum of London can be understandably overwhelming. If you can’t afford to spend a solid few hours wandering through the galleries, it’s well worth a second trip - it’s the kind of place that will yield new treasures each time you visit.