It’s become a family tradition that when my step-mother visits me in London, I take her to a museum. Having exhausted many of my favourites I thought I would take her to the Museum of London Docklands, which is free to visit and situated close to Canary Wharf.
I have a lot of respect for the Museum of London and all its associated/partner organisations. The Museum of London itself is one of my favourite London museums, and I always take visitors there. It’s one of the few museums I know of where the galleries are laid out chronologically, and it really works. I’ve written before about how much I rated the new post-medieval galleries, so I was hopeful that the Docklands Museum would show the same talented design and interactivity.
The Docklands had done a lot of advertising in the run up to the half-term, focussing on their Pirates exhibition, so I wasn’t surprised to see lots of kids in the galleries. Luckily enough most of the spaces were large and open, and the Museum seemed to be equipped with lots of trail-making leaflets and activity sheets which were being dutifully utilised by parents. I think the museum designers have done well in this respect, as despite the large numbers of loud excited children it never became overwhelming.
However the large spaces were symptomatic of a major problem with the Docklands. It really isn’t a museum. It’s what a museum would be if you took out all the objects.
I’m usually the first person to complain that there aren’t enough interpretation panels. One of my problems with the V&A’s new galleries is that they are just glass cabinets full of shiny objects with very little information. The Docklands is the complete opposite. As with the Museum of London we’ve got chronological galleries leading you through London’s docks and ports history, from the Roman period onwards. But in the vast majority of cases these galleries are filled with large interpretation panels, massive quantities of text and lots and lots of panels with scanned reproductions of original documents printed on to them. The later became rather tiring in their regularity.
It’s hard to express quite how bare this museum is – and to be honest, I’m not sure if it really is a museum in the classical sense of the word. It isn’t a treasure trove of delights. It doesn’t contain glass cases filled with strange and wonderful objects. It contains lots and lots of panels, some paintings, and the occasional thing in a box. For the traditional museum visitor like myself and my step-mother, it was a big let-down.
There are a few saving graces. The model of London Bridge in the 1400s was delightful, and set us dreaming of what it would be like to see that today. The blacksmith’s workshop is rather unexcitingly displayed and lacks much interpretation or explanation, but I was pleased to see a collection of traditional tools, the Victorian forge and even the ceramic tuyure – even if it was unceremoniously propped next to the forge with no real context. The ‘Sailortown’ walk-through reconstructed alley-way was good, though it did seem a little like a preparatory piece for the Museum of London’s much more impressive Victorian high street gallery at the Barbican site.
The Docklands Museum does tackle some very important issues, including the slave trade and the profiteering which occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries. It tries very hard to make you interested in this worthy subject, and the history of London’s ports, but without the objects to communicate with it ends up feeling a bit like reading an extended essay. Having re-read some of the promotional literature it seems like the Docklands focuses more on children and families, so perhaps adults aren’t its main target audience. I don’t know whether the limited number of objects is actually a benefit in this context or not. Certainly the small size of the Museum, which we’d finished with in about two hours, probably helps with this, though I was sad to note how many of the ‘interactives’ were broken. However it does seems somewhat incongruous that the cafe facilities for families were limited, whilst the expensive bar-restaurant clearly aimed at adults was much larger.
For an adult audience, I really can’t recommend the Docklands unless you happen to be in the area and looking for somewhere to spend a spare hour. It isn’t worth going out of your way to visit, and don’t expect to have your mind set afire by the contents of the Museum. It’s well-laid out, and well-meaning, but so dry it tends towards the boring. Unfortunate, as I really do love the Museum of London’s main site, but it seems like the Docklands suffers for being the poor cousin.