At 5pm on the 4th of December, The Museum of London closed after being at the Barbican for 46 years. It’ll resurrect itself as The London Museum at Smithfield Market in 2026. The museum went out with a bang, holding a 24 hour goodbye party so I peeked in, earlier on in the celebrations at 3pm on the 3rd.
I’ve got a personal fondness for the Museum of London, being one of the first museums I remember visiting. My family lived a little south of London and once a week in the summer holidays we’d go to the train station. If we crossed the bridge we were going on a train going right, which usually meant a trip to the beach and if we stayed on the platform near the entrance we went left, which meant to London. I think it was probably 1993, which would mean I’d just turned eight and my sister would have been two-and-a-half. We first went to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which had wowed me and taught my sister the word ‘down’ after descending the dome. We saw a sign for the museum, didn’t know anything of it and went to check it out.
What must have appealed to Mum was that it was free, this was before the major London museums were subsidised to do this and if St Paul’s was as comparatively expensive as it is now, then a freebie would have been very welcome on the budget. I have distinct memories of the Dick Whittingtons leading the way and amazement at the sheer expanse of stuff. I’d been to museums before, a trip to the Maritime Museum the year before gave me a lifelong fondness for pirates, but the scope was something else. Plus the museum had little models of London streets, showing how they looked in different periods. I got the guidebook, which I used to peer into, even if I didn’t understand all the words. (For old times sake I bought one of the discounted guidebooks in my most recent visit, as a bookend. Though, I’d have understood far more of the recent guidebook, it’s far more pictorial).
When I moved to London, I was skint and The Museum of London became one of my favourite ports of call. In the long, boring stretches of unemployment, I’d often take time out and visit - even though only the top gallery was open because the bottom was being renovated. I visited on my birthday, again with my sister. I was under the weather with what turned out to be Swine Flu, was overcome by sleepiness and had a nap in the Saxon house.
There was also a dark lure to The Museum of London, possessing, as it did, the best selection of books about London history and figures available. I bought the first of my Lathem Mathews Pepys books there (1660 of course) and it was not cheap. Another dark aspect of the museum was they kept advertising jobs I could do and then not interviewing me for them.
In more recent times, I visited the newly refurbished downstairs and had a giggle sitting in the Vauxhall Gardens, listening to dialogue from Evelina I had read on the tube getting there. It’s where I went to the fantastic exhibition on crime, and another on bodysnatching. I also went to the frankly bonkers ‘Beasts of London’. I saw a number of lectures at their theatre, including the one where part of this blog was featured, and I also went to a behind the scenes look at the fashion department and went up and personal with a potentially deadly dress.
Going round again, I was struck by how well everything is arranged and what a good story it tells. Back to the earliest humans the museum focuses on individual lives experienced in this patch of earth and amazingly, as the city becomes larger and more complex, the individual stories become more highlighted. The tour and the new guidebook both end with the cauldron of the Olympic flame from 2012, presenting it as London’s ultimate expression and, perhaps it was. Certainly, walking down the increasingly abandoned Fleet Street, or Oxford Street, empty of everything but American sweet shops that are money-laundering fronts, it would seem London’s best years are behind it. Though I’m sure that’s what the people of London thought when the Romans pulled out, or they saw the smoking ruins of the fire or the Blitz, hopefully the London Museum still has some exciting times ahead of it to record and interesting stories to tell.