• Location: West India Quay, London E14 4AL.
• Type of Museum: Local history with a big locale.
• Admission times/prices: Mon-Sun 10am-6pm, free.
• Facilities: Shops, licensed bar and restaurant, free film showings, family events on Saturdays and in school holidays, kids’ soft-play section, baby groups, lunchtime lectures and evening courses.
• Transport: DLR/tube to West India Quay, buses D3, D7, D8, 277, N50, D6, 15, 115, 135. There are also riverboat services and a paying carpark nearby.
The main bit(s).
Although this is in some ways part of the Museum of London, I’m counting it as a separate museum because it’s over a mile away from its sister museum and it has a different focus. The museums are very similar, though – this one has the same focus on train-set models and sound effects as the Museum of London and is also arranged chronologically.
This museum also builds on some of the information from the main Museum of London. For example, the MoL mentions that the reason there were Frost Fairs in Victorian times wasn’t just because the temperatures were lower, but because the Thames was flowing more slowly; I‘d wondered why, and the MoD explains that it’s because of the starlings. ‘Starling’ is the old name for the many butting-out piers that the old London Bridge used to have, which were so large and numerous that they changed the flow of the Thames.
There’s not much bling at this museum; it’s mostly wood, in the décor and in the models, in the style of the river and Docklands that the museum abuts. You’re not allowed to sit in the boats, but you are allowed to sit in the pub (same as at the Museum of London) and a few other replicas, like the rocket-ship shaped policeman’s air-raid shelter.
Two of the sections, the slave trade and the sugar cane section, focus on slavery, immigration and racism. Some of it is an attempt to correct the erroneous impression that Africa had no history before the Europeans invaded; I’d have liked to see more of this, but perhaps another museum will give me that later in the year.
Here there is a ‘Son et Lumiere’ show every twenty minutes; this turns out to be a very brief projector show. I like the second-person phrasing: ‘You will not speak your language, you will not have your own name, you will be sold…’ but I’m not sure it exactly deserves the name ‘son et lumiere.’
The extra bit(s).
Downstairs is the Sainsbury Study Centre, which I expected to be simply named after its wealthy benefactors like sponsored galleries often are, but no, it was mostly a display about the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain.
The Siege of Sidney St temporary exhibition was a lot smaller than I’d expected, but the objects it has on display – guns, lock-picks, Churchill’s coats – are worth seeing, since you can’t quite get that from reading a Wikipedia article on the subject.
The bits where you end up spending money.
The shop has quite a lot of fun pirate stuff as well as the usual rulers and pencils. There is a café with outside seating, but it was close when we visited. We spent no money (apart from the donation) but my little waste-disposal puppy still ate the events leaflet.
Stuff for kids and people who act like them.
For little kids, this museum is ideal. There’s a soft-play section called Mudlarks which we peered in through the door at, and it looked fun; my 12-year-olds wanted to join in. For kids their age, there isn’t so much of interest; the only parts they really enjoyed were the replica shopping street and ‘Sailortown,’ which they declared creepy, but clearly in a good way, as they giggled at every strange voice emanating from the corners. Apparently even my own laugh is creepy in this context; usually it’s just my smile which gets that reaction. Sailortown also has olfactory effects, which, according to another visitor, don’t smell as bad as they used to. I’m not sure what the smell was supposed to be, because I had a cold so couldn’t really tell, but one 12-year-old’s verdict was that it ‘smelt like old people. ‘