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The Museum of London

by Kavitha Rao

Neolithic tools Visitors to London often suffer from "museum fatigue". Once you have trudged through the galleries of the massive British Museum and dragged the kids to the Victoria and Albert Museum, you may well think you have seen it all, or as much of it as you can take in. Still, make room for one more visit -- to a little known museum that makes history digestible for even the most jaded traveler or bored child.

The Museum of London near St Paul's tells you everything you need to know about London from prehistoric to modern times, yet it serves up history in bite size chunks. The displays of archaeological finds ranging from Neolithic flints to medieval curios are interspersed with reconstructed street scenes, audio displays and costumes. Did you know, for instance, that rhinos, elephants and hippos once roamed London? Here you can see the tools and weapons used by the early humans who lived in the Thames valley, some dating as far back as 450,000 B.C. Interested in seeing what the Romans ate, how they lived and what they did for amusement? Among hundreds of Roman artifacts ranging from manicure sets to slave shackles, you can see a reconstructed Roman house complete with the original kitchen appliances and mosaic floor. A cookbook displayed tells us that wealthy Romans ate such delicacies as peacock rissoles, milk-fed snails and stuffed dormice. One of the rarest finds is the Spitalfields woman, the skeleton of a wealthy Roman aristocrat discovered buried in a sarcophagus, who probably lived between 300 to 400 A.D. A reconstructed bust shows a young woman in her twenties with delicate features and a high forehead, probably as close as you will ever come to seeing what a Roman lady of the time looked like.

The two great disasters that shaped London's history -- the Great Plague of 1602 and the Great Fire in 1666 -- are well represented. "You and I are earth" says the inscription on a Delft plate made at the time of the plague, a poignant reminder of how brief life was during medieval times. Beside it is a record of the victims; 110,000 people died in London alone. You can hear a reading of Samuel Pepys' eyewitness account of the Great Fire, while looking at a "sound and light" display of the devastation caused by the fire. A rare portrait of London in 1630 by an unknown artist shows St Paul's Cathedral, the four great Elizabethan theatres and the gruesome sight of the heads of executed traitors displayed on the gateway to London Bridge. More cheerful displays include the gorgeous "Cheapside hoard", a glittering display of medieval jewellery. Children will enjoy the sumptuous crimson and gilt Lord Mayor's State Coach, built in 1757 and still in use, and the fabulous costumes from the Stuart era. More bloodthirsty youngsters may be fascinated by the shirt that Charles the First wore on the scaffold, or the "Crime in London" section, that displays everything from whipping posts to Victorian broadsheets describing famous crimes.

Those interested in Victorian London will find the Museum especially fascinating. Stroll the Victorian Walk -- a display of original shop fronts in Victorian times -- while looking at the toys, costumes and inventions of the time. Visitors can also use one of the computers to take a journey through 19th century life via film clips, images and commentary by modern experts. Some of the facts may surprise you. Most followers of London's history have heard of the Great Fire and the Great Plague, but have you heard of the Great Stink of 1858? Without it, London's modern sewage system might not exist. By 1858, the Thames had become so polluted with industrial byproducts and sewage that the stench could be smelt all over the city. London's population began to panic, fearing the onset of cholera which was believed to be spread by foul smelling air. In response to public pressure, London's modern sewage system was designed and installed, and a more sweet-smelling city followed.

London is nothing if not a melting pot, and the museum is also a great record of the city's diversity. One of its most interesting projects is the ongoing "Moving Here" project. This provides online access to virtual exhibitions, personal stories and a database with 150,000 records and images that records the experience of Irish, South Asian, Jewish and Caribbean immigrants. There are numerous digs, talks, and workshops throughout the year on everything from digging up Roman ruins to making stained glass.

Again, children bored by galleries of archaeological displays may find it more interesting to learn how to excavate a skeleton or design a medieval mural. If you are trying to get to grips with a barrage of historical facts, or your family is unenthusiastic about yet another "educational" visit, the museum is exactly the right size: plenty to see but not enough to overwhelm.

Editor's Note: As of 2008, the lower floor of the Museum of London is closed for renovations and upgrades; it is scheduled to reopen in 2010. The upper floor offers exhibits from the prehistoric period through the Fire of London in 1666. This includes an excellent section on Roman London (from which one can look down upon the surviving wall of the Roman fort) and a very interesting Medieval Section. You can easily miss the Stuart exhibit, which is tucked away below the Medieval Exhibit; it is not signposted, but as you exit, instead of following the signs to the exit, turn right and go down the ramp. Unfortunately, the Victorian Walk and the Lord Mayor's Coach will not be on display until the lower floor reopens, and few interactive exhibits are available at this time. However, this is still a fascinating museum and well worth a trip.

Museum of London
London Wall, London EC 2 Y5HN.
Nearest Tube station: Barbican, St Paul's, Bank.
Tel: 44 (0)20 7600 3699. Automated information line: 44 020 7600 0807.

Admission is free.

Kavitha Rao is a freelance writer who has lived and worked in Mumbai, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo. She currently lives in London, and doesn't think she will ever tire of it. Her articles on culture, travel, literature and lifestyles have appeared in the Daily Telegraph, Asiaweek, the South China Morning Post and the Far Eastern Economic Review, among others.
Article © 2005 Kavitha Rao
Photo courtesy of The Museum of London


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