- Location: 150 London Wall, Moorgate, EC2Y 5HN
- Type of Museum: Local history.
- Admission times/prices: Mon-Sun 10am-6pm, free.
- Facilities: Shop, 2 cafes, licensed bar and restaurant, lecture theatre, education centre.
- Transport: Tube from Barbican, St Paul’s or Moorgate, buses 4, 8, 25, 56, 100, 25, 172, 242, 521, and loads of Boris Bikes.
The main bit(s).
Although I usually find this area’s ‘city in the sky’ architecture difficult to navigate, this time I was guided to the museum by the excited cries of small children.
Due to my need for food, I didn’t follow the normal route through the museum, which starts with ‘London before London;’ instead, I started at the future (see ‘extras’ below) and worked backwards. This works pretty well, moving gradually from the very familiar to the really rather strange.
The tiny City Gallery has both those attributes; as the display points out, the City of London is the oldest part of London, yet has some of the most futuristic buildings. But the ‘strange’ part really comes in the Worshipful Companies, the Lord Mayor, the pomp and circumstance, and the status of the City corporation as kind of a platinum-card borough, with control over a lot more things (like the police) than boroughs have. Most boroughs also don’t have an enormous pantomime coach with more bling than a hip-hop club c.1999.
This floor also houses the Victorian and 20th century sections, with a few small interactive sections like the pleasure gardens, a mocked-up shopping quarter, and a little cinema area with extremely comfortable seats. Plentiful seating is one of the pluses of this museum, which might seem like a strange compliment, but you do get so much more enjoyment out of reading displays or checking out a 3D replica if you’re not distracted by stretching your back and wincing. There are folding chairs at the gallery entrances, but also plenty of seats inside.
Two other features are common throughout the galleries: scale models of the type you find in train sets (though with no trains) and the use of sound. All of the sections have sound in some form; for example, that Victorian shopping quarter has bartering shop traders and horses hooves, the Pleasure Gardens has birdsong, music and chatter, and, upstairs, the Roman section has strange people shouting angrily in Latin from a corner.
This Roman section is probably my favourite part, and not just because the Romans always seem so much cooler than later invaders. No, it’s because, well, you know how some movies have cults operating underground both literally and figuratively, chanting in a monotone and worshipping ancient Egyptian Gods? Turns out that really happened in London, with the Temple of Mithras as an example. Some Roman Gods were worshipped in this temple too, plus a couple of local river deities – it was a pick-and-mix religion. Much later, that temple was rededicated to Bacchus. Yup, Londoners, starting out with spiritual stuff and then turning to booze, sounds about right.
From the medieval section, my favourite parts were the unexpectedly spacious and comfortable Anglo-Saxon cottage, the Medieval Game of Life on the touch-screen displays (if you choose to drink water, you die) and the information that the Viking who beat Ethelred was called Swein. Yes, I am easily amused.
The name ‘London,’ by the way, might well be the original British name for the area; the Romans called it Londinium, but they were just adding the inium bit. The Saxons later established an extra bit called Londonwic, and the Vikings renamed the whole thing Londonberg, but it always reverted to London in the end.
The extra bit(s).
This is the ‘future’ bit where I started: ‘Inspiring London,’ 14 pictures showing artists’ impressions of how London might look in the future, all photos of real places with just a couple of changes; the commonest predictions are for a frozen and flooded London and shanty towns right in the centre. The exhibition is intended to be a warning, not a simple series of predictions, but it would have been nice to see a vision as positive as the statement at the start, which talks about London as a warm, friendly tourist destination.
The bits where you end up spending money.
The main café is one of the first things you see as you enter the museum; even on a workday afternoon, there was a long queue, but a sign informed me that there is another café downstairs. This café did have a tiny selection of food, but I also had no queue and plenty of seats. Those seats are surrounded by a light display of statistics about London; apparently the average Londoner works 7 hours 36 minutes overtime per week, which I can well believe.
In the shop, I ended up coming away with some unusually cheap bath salts. The puppy hasn’t eaten them yet, but I haven’t been home long; she does have a taste for bath salts even though they make her vomit fizz.
Stuff for kids and people who act like them.
Kids will like the audio effects and the scale models, I’m sure, but there’s enough interactive stuff to keep them interested too. You can enter and sit down in quite a few of the exhibitions, rather than just looking, and there are of course the usual museum trails and worksheets. In the holidays there are special activities for families, and, more unusually, the museum hosts a toddler group every Wednesday. I guess it is still a local history museum, after all, even if it is a little larger than they usually are.