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May 23 / Simon

Inside the streets of London

Simon Tait gets a preview of the Museum of London’s £23m new displays
The title “Galleries of Modern London” might be a bit confusing, but it means modern in the academic sense of everything since about 1066, and therefore not ancient.

But the £23m new galleries of the Museum of London are modern in another way. Although their timeline starts at the Great Fire of 1666, this display is a thoroughly modern essay on a modern city and its past. For one thing, until now the permanent displays have had nothing from the First World War on, a jarring omission that has been corrected now.

For the first time the museum has made poignant use of the impressive archive of filmed vox pops dating back to the mid-60s in which Londoners of all ages reflect on their lives, their pasts and their hopes for the future. And there is a quietly dramatic presentation of the Second World War, with a single unexploded bomb suspended in the centre of a circular room while more oral history and films are played around it.

It is one of several interesting uses of film, the most immediate being in the new hub of the displays, the Sackler Hall, which doubles as a modern coffee shop reflecting the places of the 16th and 17th centuries where all our banking and much of the planning of the world’s future was done. Here, though, a chandelier screen surrounding us at picture rail height gives us an eclectic 24 hours in the life of the city in movies, still frames, tone poems, and landscapes by fill-makers and artists like Patrick Keiller, Andrea Gursky, Koyannistqati and Edward Burtynsky.

It has been three years in the making, and director Jack Lohman has been able to carve out an extra 25% of space by shifting the display space up to the street at London Wall, where for the first time passers-by and see what is beyond the brutalist concrete wall of the original museum architecture of Powell and Moya, and be confronted by the splendour of the Lord Mayor’s state coach, a 300-year-old confection of rococo pomp.

This design by Wilkinson Eyre working with the museum’s in-house design team gives natural light beaming up from the south, the lack of which had always made the galleries a bit claustrophobic before.

One of the new delights is a representation of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the 18th century playground for the sybaritic fun-seekers, where masquerade figures are dotted among the gazebos and hedges, and a curious drama – a murder? – is played out on a backdrop film.

A 240-year-old printing press is brought back to life to spew out news stories, and the great Rhinebeck panorama painting of London of 1806 shows what passed for movie entertainment 200 years ago.

Old friends have been returned to public life, like the streets of London, the Victoria shops and businesses opened out for us to see, including the monumentally dignified urinal. For the last few years this delight has been a handy store while other things were sorted out on the premises. And among the old friends there’s Nelson’s sword, given to the hero after the Battle of the Nile by a grateful City that could now profit from the open seas the admiral had cleared of hostile French and Spanish warships.

But there is also poverty, with a room papered with Charles Booth’s frightening maps showing colour codes the most deprived streets of the richest s-city in the world in the last years of the 19th century; the horrors of cholera and typhoid; and prison life.

There are 7,000 objects on show, and the extra space has enabled the curators to got into greater depth on subjects that were important parts of the story of London, such as the Suffragettes. As well as the Pankhurst ladies that led the action in the first decade and a half of the 10th century, there are the ordinary working women that risked all for their right to have a say in public life, not just the right to vote. A display of the fashions of the early 1900s, near to the opulent arts deco Selfridges lift, is counter pointed with shabby rags many other Londoners were forced to wear, and a film in the background shows a scrap-clad girl sewing intently by candlelight.

“We wanted to breathe new life into the telling of a story that is so exciting, so the objects are here to talk rather than a simply be admired” Lohman said. “It is thrilling to see our ambitious and complex project realised.”