This afternoon I visited the Museum of London. Although I am very familiar with the first floor galleries (prehistory to the medieval period) and I have to admit to being a little bit critical of some of these, I was really impressed with the new Lower Gallery.

I remember the days when I used to take friends or family to the MoL, and just leave when we had finished seeing the medieval stuff. My opinion of the lower gallery, with all its boring mayoral, city, alderman and guilds left-overs was never that high. I am not keen on large golden carriages.

But a while back they closed the whole level for a complete refit. I thought it would be a lick of paint and a bit of an improvement. My first impression this afternoon is that they’ve completely rethought, reanalysed and re-engineered the whole gallery.

Gone are most of the dull things I really wasn’t interested, and as far as I could see only one golden carriage survived (moved away from the main area and into a corner). In its place is a set of galleries covering 1666 through to the modern day, with thousands of objects, loads of interactives and no namby-pamby ignoring of contentious political issues.

One display that really stuck in my mind was the section on the suffragette movement, which was a real surprise and actually quite moving. I’ve never seen a good display, or really any display, tackling that issue. There were also displays right into the1980s, and the Brixton riots. In addition to race rights, the curators covered things like ongoing feminist and sexuality struggles, and the poll tax riots. I was incredibly impressed that the museum had put so much effort into the modern displays, as due to the temporal proximity of the subject I find displays often feel a little half-finished and uncertain.

I’ll admit that I was visiting purely for pleasure and wasn’t engaging a critical eye, but the displays were surprisingly intricate, detailed, interesting and emotive. I will give the standard criticism of modern museum galleries – it was very difficult to get information on individual objects, and often the usual descriptive signs were completely missing. In addition we did get lost and completely missed a section of the gallery, so clearer signing would be really useful in enabling visitors to move chronologically (the galleries are supposed to be interacted with in that way).

I would have loved it if a more in-depth handbook was available for people like me, who really want to know about objects rather than passively marvel in the display. The Victorian section had some fantastic period photographs with great contexts and associated objects and costume, but I was really frustrated when they didn’t always have any information cards. In addition, rather than number everything, the curators had little pictures of the objects on the information cards below, which were surprisingly hard to match up. It’s very difficult to discern one black-and-white photograph from another when they are the size of a postage stamp!

That said the Victorian gallery and the one covering the period up to the first world war (together named ‘People’s City’ by the curators) were really entrancing. I was captivated by many of the displays, and lagged signficantly behind my non-archaeology companion. Walking through the Victorian Street, which features a number of shop fronts and shop rooms fitted out with period objects and themes made me long to own a time-machine, and I always consider that a good mark of a recreation!

The whole trip was a little spur-of-the-moment, so a full review with photographs will probably have to wait for another time, but I can thoroughly recommend the new lower galleries. It’s clear that rather than simply redesigning the previous galleries, the museum were incredibly brave and went for a complete and total revisioning of what the space could be used for.

The irony is of course that I found the experience rather passive because of the lack of information available on many of the pieces, despite the fact that the the gallery is supposed to be ‘interactive’. I guess that’s down to how I experience museums – I want to seek out new information and learn new things, rather than passively accept the veracity of the highly constructed and essentially completely faked ‘scene’ or ‘experience’ that the museum presents me with. But it was an extremely attractive, engaging and often emotive scene, I’ll give them that!


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