To escape from the freezing weather at the weekend, I spent a couple of afternoons looking around the Museum of London, which I haven’t yet been to since moving here. I think I may have been there once as a kid, but I don’t recall it in any detail. It’s a really interesting place though, covering the entire history of London through a huge variety of exhibits. So I was really looking forward to exploring it, as I’ve always loved the city since I was a child visiting relatives here, and I’m now very happy to be actually living here.
My first visit on Saturday afternoon had a dual purpose, as I was helping a lovely lady called Rafie Cecilia from University College London with her PhD study into assistive technology for visually impaired people at museums. This basically involved me wearing a camera on my chest to record what I was looking at, while Rafie followed me around and took notes on what I was doing, and then she recorded an interview with me afterwards about my experience. She’s very friendly and professional, and it’s wonderful that she’s looking into this kind of thing, so I enjoyed the experience. This is our second of 3 meetings in fact, having first got together at the Victoria & Albert Museum in December, and I’m looking forward to meeting her again at the Wallace Collection soon. And I know she’ll be reading this, so hello! 🙂
I had only intended to visit for one day this weekend, but as I didn’t get to see the entire first floor on Saturday, I decided to go back and finish it off on Sunday. That only took another hour though, which was quicker than I thought it would be. So I ended up going downstairs and looking through all of that floor as well. Sure, I didn’t read or view everything along the way, as I couldn’t see it all clearly enough, for reasons I’ll get to later in this post. But I did get to see a lot of lovely things, and took hundreds of photos along the way, so I got a lot out of it overall.
Finding The Museum
The museum is in an unusual location near the Barbican centre, its position largely dictated by the fact that there’s part of the old Roman wall next to it, which is interesting to see. They’re actually getting ready to move to the nearby Smithfield Market in the next few years or so, and plan to make the new museum as fully accessible as possible in the process, which is awesome. But they’ve been open on their current site for over 40 years.
If you can’t see well, however, it’s not necessarily obvious how to get in there. When I’ve been in that area before over the past year, I’ve completely walked past the way in without realising it. But then I wasn’t looking for it at the time to be fair. And I used Street View to plan my journey when I knew I would actually be visiting, so I knew where I was going then.
But if you’ve never been there, It’s essentially in the middle of a roundabout, on top of a huge cylindrical structure which they call a rotunda, with bridges at the top that cross the road and connect it to nearby buildings. So to get in, you have to use a lift, escalator or stairs to get up to one of the bridges and walk over.
The nearest Tube stations are Barbican and St Paul’s, and I used the latter. When you come through the ticket barriers at St Paul’s, you go to the exit on the left, and up the left staircase at the end of the corridor. You’ll then be at the beginning of a street that you can walk straight down to the other end. It’s only a few minutes walk, it’s not far. And you can’t miss the roundabout at the end, as it has Museum of London emblazoned on the central wall, and the bridges overhead. As you approach the roundabout, you’ll pass a crossing, and then an upward sloping section of the kerb that you need to stick to the right to avoid tripping over.
As soon as you pass that sloping bit of kerb, there’s an opening on your right that has a lift and escalators, with the up escalator on the right. That one was working, whereas the down escalator wasn’t on both days that I went, so you just had to walk down it. It’s a strange feeling walking down a static escalator, because the steps are deeper than a normal staircase, and you’re instinctively careful when you come off the end even though it’s not moving!
Entering The Museum
Whichever bridge you choose to cross, you’ll end up on the walkway going around the top of rotunda, and in the centre you can look down to see a green garden area.
Around the edge of the walkway, there are also panels telling you about books that have London connections, with a brief description of each title and an extract from the text, including Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone, 1984, A Clockwork Orange, The Day Of The Triffids and various others. So if you’re into literature, you might want to spend some time looking at those.
I only spotted them on the second day I was there. On Saturday, I was heading to meet Rafie anyway, so just walked straight past them, assuming the text was advertising the museum or something like that. But when I looked out of curiosity on Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was more than that. I didn’t read it all there and then though, it would have taken ages. So I read a few, and then ended up taking photos of all of them, so I can read them on my computer whenever I like, inverting the text and zooming in if need be to make it easier.
Like many museums, the Museum of London has security at the door, but it was slightly different to some of the other museums I’ve been to. Usually I can just walk straight in, because I don’t carry a bag, and they never want to check what’s in my jacket. But at the Museum of London on Saturday, it was a bit more like an airport, as I had to empty my pockets and walk through a metal detector to get inside. This was a quick and easy process though. Considering it was half term, and there were lots of people in the museum, the queue actually wasn’t very long, and it moved quickly. So that was good.
When I returned on Sunday, however, I didn’t have to do that. There were members of staff hanging around near the entrance, but there was no queue and no metal detectors, so everyone was able to walk in without stopping, which was great. Maybe they were still doing bag checks on people, I don’t know, but I didn’t notice if they were. In any case, if anyone had looked suspicious, they would have been stopped of course.
In the huge entrance lobby, there’s a big round information desk in the centre, while on the left there’s a small cafe, next to which is a cloakroom. Well, it’s called a cloakroom, but it’s basically just a locker room. You don’t hand your possessions to someone at a desk like in other museums – you just pick a free locker, secure your possessions and keep the key on you until you’re ready to retrieve them. Next to the cloakroom is a shop, then at the back of the room is an opening leading to the toilets and a staircase.
The entrance to the main galleries, meanwhile, is at the back right corner of the big reception area. The word Galleries is in huge letters on the wall above it, so it was easy to spot. The galleries are laid out in chronological order, so you just walk through from one to the next, taking in the story of London from its earliest settlements right through to the modern day. So on the first floor, where you enter, you see things like the Romans, Saxons, Normans, the Black Death, etc, finishing with the Great Fire Of London. The staircase at the far end then takes you down to the lower floor, where things become more modern and up to date, reflecting the growth of manufacturing, industrialisation, technology, politics, multiculturalism, and so on. So there’s loads to explore.
Generally speaking, I was able to navigate my way around the museum unaided and enjoyed looking at many of the exhibits. But there were also a few accessibility issues that detracted from the experience a bit, limiting the amount of things I could read and the exhibits I could clearly see. Those issues will hopefully be improved when they move to their new site in the next few years though, as I know it’s a big priority for them.
Firstly, it’s very important to note that the museum do have an accessibility page on their website, which I looked at before my visit. It’s brilliant to see that they do accessible tours involving audio description and British sign language for a start. The audio description tours are held during the week though, so I would have to get half a day off work for something like that. Which I can do sometimes, but it’s not always going to be convenient. However, you can also book an audio described tour with at least 2 weeks notice, which is interesting to know. Similarly, you can also book a ‘helping host’ to accompany you for up to 2 hours on your visit if you wish. So all of that is great.
The other thing the website says is that you can pick up large print guides from the Information Desk. However, when I tried asking about them on Saturday, the receptionist had to apologise when she found they didn’t have any, and said she would have to talk to the exhibition curators about it, because they should have them available. So that was very disappointing, as I’ve found them to be really useful in other museums. It doesn’t mean I can’t read things at all, but they do make things much easier .She did give me a large print map though – which is potentially handy, but I didn’t end up needing to use it myself.
When I went back on Sunday, I saw the museum was as busy as the day before – which wasn’t surprising, being a half term weekend – so I didn’t bother queuing to ask for a large print guide, as I figured they probably still wouldn’t have one. And I had got used to using my monocular to read things on Saturday anyway, so I was content enough to carry on doing that.
Some things were easier to read than others though. At the beginning of particular galleries, and sections within galleries, there was often a big panel of text of text on the wall, and they were easy to read. Sometimes it was light text on a dark background, which I find works best for me, but even the regular black on white text was alright as well, given the size it was printed at. So I could either walk right up close to those big panels and read them, or if I saw other people were also reading them, I would stand back and use my monocular instead.
Some areas also had some tall orange panels with black text on. But these would have taken more concentration and strain on my eyes to read, because of the poorer contrast. So I avoided those, as I knew I would have enough to read elsewhere as it was.
Where you had multiple exhibits within a case, you would usually have a panel with fairly big text explaining what the objects were. This was often behind the glass, either on the back wall or across the bottom of the case, so I had to use my monocular to read them either. The labels at the bottoms of cases were at a child-friendly height really, so continuously bending down to read them when you’re 6ft 1 isn’t really practical. Hence my monocular was easier.
Similarly, the descriptions of the objects were often behind the glass, either at the bottom, or in a tall narrow panel to one side. And these were in much smaller print, so were even harder to read. So I often didn’t read those object description panels in detail. Even if they had been bigger, it would still have been a lot of text to look at, in addition to the other panels mentioned above. So I tended to scan through the item headings to give me a good sense of what was in front of me, and only looked at any extra information if a particular object caught my eye as being particularly interesting. It was sometimes hard to match a specific object to the label though, as the numbers by the objects were small and hard to find as well.
Lighting was also an issue, as sometimes it was too dim to read labels or see the objects themselves, particularly those that were inside glass cases. There were a few instances of this on the first floor, but it seemed to be more common in the galleries on the lower floor. I appreciate the lighting was sometimes for atmospheric reasons (e.g. the darkness of wartime or Victorian streets), or to help preserve the exhibits, but it still made things difficult sometimes.
So there were a number of instances, especially on the lower floor, where I would look at the contents of an exhibition case through the camera on my phone. I didn’t turn the torchlight on – my phone just adapts to the light far better than my own eyes do, and so it allowed me to see things more clearly sometimes. I took lots of photos while I was exploring anyway, so I’m able to look through them on my computer, zooming in where necessary. It means I can see things that I missed at the time. I won’t know what the significance of each item is, because I don’t have pictures of the labels, but I can still admire the objects nonetheless.
The glass case containing jewellery in the photo below is a good example. To my eyes, the case was too dark to see inside, and it was only by using my phone that I got to admire its contents. Notice how the phone has had to automatically brighten the image to focus on the objects, so that the white label panels at the back are bleached out and unreadable.
Within each gallery, there are items to look at all over the place, not just around the edges but in the middle as well. So if you want to see everything, you’ll have to take a very snaking route through it all. And that in itself makes it easy to miss things, as I found on Sunday, when I stumbled upon an area containing some furnished rooms that I must have walked past on Saturday, as I didn’t remember seeing it. Moving from one gallery to the next in sequence isn’t too bad though, as there is only one way you can go, ultimately, either walking through the galleries or using the walkway alongside them..
When moving between floors, however, you do need to be careful on the staircases, because they’re not edge marked. Or if they are, they’re using black edging on black steps, so it doesn’t show up. There are railings to hold on to though. But the steps really should be marked better.
So it was a bit tricky sometimes, due to the lack of large print guides, and small print or dim light in some areas. However, I was able to see and enjoy a lot of the objects, and read quite a bit of of the text, with the help of my monocular and my phone as and when appropriate. I was also pleased that it was easy to get close enough to see all of the exhibits, despite the fact that there were quite a few people there, especially parents and children. Sometimes they can get in the way at museums during holiday season, but here it wasn’t too bad.
So I did enjoy my visit very much, it just took a bit more effort to see some of the exhibits than I’d have liked, and I know there’s a fair amount I missed. If I were going around with someone, either a sighted friend or an audio describer, or if I’d had a large print guide, then I would have got even more out of it. But the hundreds of things I did see I really liked, so I’ll go through a few of the highlights now.
The first thing you come to in the museum is the Fatberg, of course, which is a new exhibit they opened this weekend, in time for half term. If you don’t know what a fatberg is, it’s basically a huge, disgusting blockage in a sewer, made up of stuff that people have flushed down the toilet instead of putting in the bin. So it includes things like nappies, baby wipes, condoms, needles, cooking fat, food, sweet wrappers, etc. Even iPhones apparently. All this kind of stuff sticks together and just grows and grows and grows without flowing away. And it’s costing Thames Water £1 million per month to remove these fatbergs.
The Whitechapel Fatberg they discovered in September last year was particularly serious. It was absolutely massive, and it would have destroyed the sewer if it had grown much further. It weighed the same as 11 double decker buses and was longer than Tower Bridge! So the workmen had an extremely hard job to remove it, even bringing in powerful tools to chip away at the parts that had hardened up like concrete, and wearing protective clothing to protect them from the toxins it was giving off.
The Museum of London were able to get a couple of samples of the fatberg, which were a challenge to put on display, and so that’s what you get here. There are a couple of small, air-dried samples from the Fatberg, in glass cases, which you can look at. And to go with this, you can see the protective equipment and tools used by the workmen involved with the fatberg’s extraction and disposal, and there’s an interesting video about it too, which you can watch on a large screen.
I happened to be looking around just as a lady from the museum was about to give a talk about it. So I stopped to listen to that, and it was really good. Her enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject came across really well, so it was very interesting and engaging. And hopefully this exhibition about the Fatberg will get some people thinking about how they dispose of their waste in the future, because it is a big problem.
Next to the Fatberg is an exhibition about London Before London, with lots of old tools and pottery and things used by the oldest settlements in this area of the country. I had initially walked past this on Saturday when I was with Rafie, as I’d not clearly noticed the entrance to it with all the distraction of the Fatberg stuff. I’d seen the corridor, but not realised what it was leading to. But after I’d said goodbye to her and went back into the galleries area again, I looked more closely and found the gallery, and spent the rest of my visit that day looking around there.
Prior to that, though, I had been covering the first floor in chronological order, which takes you through the Romans, Saxons, Normans, etc, leading all the way through to the Plague and the Great Fire. In amongst all of this, to name just a few of the thousands of things on display, there’s a huge and impressive wall painting of an army of Roman soldiers with their horses and elephants, a section of the original London wall that you can see through the window, a video about the combat entertainment that used to take place in big arenas, a model of the original St Paul’s Cathedral (before it was replaced by the one with the dome that we know today), a model of the Rose Theatre (which some people mistake for the Globe), a dark room featuring a video presentation about the Black Death (with audio that was more poetic than factual, and factual text on screen that I couldn’t read quick enough), and artefacts relating to the Great Fire Of London (including paintings showing its devastating impact on the city).
Downstairs things become more modern, and it’s a bit like walking into a different museum altogether. There’s things like fashion and jewellery, including a few different styles of shoes you can touch, and plenty of paintings and posters on the walls. You can also touch a few objects in the gallery all about the war, with a few items attached to the cases children took with them when they were evacuated – so when you touch them, the contents of the case are magically revealed, which is clever. It’s not easy to see everything inside them, but still clever. There are also a couple of taxis on display, and a big red telephone box. The Victorian Walk is also quite good, where you can look through some typical shop windows from the era as you walk through the streets. And you can’t miss the Selfridges lifts – both the interior and exterior design of those are very impressive. I managed to catch a lady giving a talk about those, so I enjoyed listening to that. Again, like the lady I had listened to the day before, she was very good and clearly knew what she was talking about, so it was really good.
As you reach the end, there’s a special display about the Suffragettes, marking 100 years since some women were given the right to vote. There are some nice items on display here, in front of a huge cinema screen, on which you can see a film with people talking about what the Suffragettes achieved. You then come to a more futuristic section, with screens showing possible visions, some extreme and some purely artistic, of how London could look in the decades and centuries to come.
Near to this is the entrance to a room containing the cauldron from the London 2012 Olympics (there is also a display of 2012 Olympics memorabilia at the end of the modern galleries which is worth looking out for). I loved those games, and have the highlights DVD boxset of it. And in particular, I thought our opening ceremony was incredible. It completely blew away all the doubters and sceptics, because it was full of so many amazing surprises.
The cauldron was a real work of genius, with all the different pods, one each for every nation, and each a unique shape, rising and coming together to form the big Olympic flame. So you can stand next to the cauldron and take in just show big it is, as well as seeing some of the moulds used to make the different elements of it ,and see some footage from the opening ceremony.
It’s just a pity, therefore, that the space is so dark, which made it difficult to see the cauldron clearly, for me at least. I could see enough to get a good sense of its size and scale, and it is indeed impressive. But I couldn’t easily admire its design in detail given the low light. I could see the pods on the end of the poles a bit, but not very clearly (although the moulds for making them on the shelves are nice and easy to look at). Even my phone could only do much with the cauldron here, which gives you an idea of how dark it was. So I didn’t get to appreciate the cauldron quite as much as I’d hoped, but it was still nice to be there and get a good sense of how big and impressive it is.
Finally on this lower floor you also have the cafe area, and stretching all the way around the top part of the circular wall is a big computer display called Pulse. There’s a big TV screen in the centre, showing data about the latest trends on Twitter from people in the London area, and then some of the most common words and emojis from people’s tweets are protected along the rest of the wall. It’s pretty cool to look at, as it’s always updating and changes colour.
So you never know what you’ll see there, as I discovered in one shot I took, which appears to show the word “arse” on the left hand side! One friend has suggested to me that it might be “large”, but I’m not convinced. Although the “L” could be hidden by the vertical line on the left, and as all the letters seem to have a consistent thickness, the top right line of the “G” appears appears to be too thin compared to the rest of it, so I don’t think it’s that! But who knows?
Overall, it’s a wonderful museum. It provides a very comprehensive and fascinating history of London through the ages, with a huge variety of different objects. It’s amazing to see how the city has developed over the centuries, with all the ups and downs it’s had along the way. It makes you appreciate all the more just how special and amazing the place is.
I did have a few accessibility issues, with the unavailability of large print guides, and the small text or dim lighting make it difficult to see some things. So there were certainly things I missed out on. However, they do provide audio described and sign language tours, which I will have to try at some point, the staff who give talks in the exhibitions are brilliant, and wheelchair access appears to be good as far as I can tell,. Plus they’ve got accessibility very much in mind for when they develop their new premises, so hopefully they’ll be able to build it in as much as possible from the ground up.
So if you’re interested in London and its history, it is well worth a visit, as there’s such a lot there, and it’s all free of charge to look at. I enjoyed looking around at all the things I was able to see, and have lots of nice photos to remind me of it all too. And don’t forget to check out their accessibility page if need be, to see what might help you.
I also need to go and explore their other museum, the Museum of London Docklands. I went on an audio described tour of their Sailortown Exhibition with Mum last year, which was wonderful, but I haven’t explored the rest of the museum yet. So that’s high on my to-do list, quite possibly another place to escape to whilst waiting for the weather to warm up a bit. I’ve enjoyed their main museum, so I know I’ll like exploring their Docklands one too. Having an insight into its history really does emphasise what an amazing city this is, and I do feel very fortunate and proud to live here. 🙂