Tuesday, 18 May 2010

First Impressions: Galleries of Modern London

by Paul Lay,

Next Friday (May 28th) sees the opening of the Galleries of Modern London at the Museum of London. It aims to tell the story of the city from its phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1666 to its current status as the world’s greatest global metropolis. The £20 million it cost to refurbish the gallery has, by and large, been well spent. The Sackler Hall, the gallery’s entrance and hub, is encircled by a 48-metre long digital ribbon called LDN24 created by a group of conceptual artists called The Light Surgeons. It’s the kind of thing that could go terribly wrong. But it succeeds brilliantly. Its focus is a speeded up film of 24 hours in the life of London, which manages to capture its rush, flavour and diversity, eschewing the stereotypical images of smiling policeman and red buses, and replacing them with images of office workers exercising; packed restaurants; traffic jams; bewildered tourists; shoppers. All go about their business against a backdrop rich in history and referenced again and again in the new galleries. An enveloping stream of statistics is emitted on the surrounding LED display. Looking up, as images of the financial powerhouse of the City of London beamed from the screen, I learnt that the highest paid male executive of a FTSE company earned an annual salary of £36 million; his female equivalent gets by on just £4 million. The statistics never cease.

Wealth and poverty are at the heart of London’s story. Perhaps the most memorable new item on display is a mid-18th century cell from the Wellclose debtors prison, originally located near the Tower of London. Its cells lay beneath a public house called the Cock and Neptune which was connected to a courthouse for which the pub’s landlord acted as a gaoler. The damp wooden walls of the cell are covered in the scratched scrawls of the inmates. One reads:

The Cubard’s Empty
To Our Sorrow
But Hope it will
Be Full to Morrow

The wealthy and those curious of their activities, may have made their way to one of the Pleasure Gardens that grew up on London’s outskirts – most notably Vauxhall – during the 18th century and were much imitated elsewhere. Within the circular Pleasure Garden gallery, a new addition, with its filmed backdrop of 18th-century characters, there are figures in costumes that imitate those of the time, created by the likes of London’s leading fahionistas such as the late Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. Masked ladies, acrobats, harlequins and ambassadors cavort as a surprisingly witty commentary unfolds.

Elsewhere in the galleries, old favourites remain, though now with more space in which to be appreciated: the Victorian Walk, with its rich, evocative array of pubs, banks, workshops and tea rooms; the wonderfully ornate Selfridges lift from 1928; Nelson’s sword of honour, emphasising the debt that London’s traders owed to the Royal Navy’s policing of the oceans; and the Lord Mayor’s State Coach, made in 1757 and still used annually in the Lord Mayor’s Show, which gets its own gallery, visible from London Wall.

The largest display of new material comes at the end. Much is made of London radicalism and eccentricity, embodied in characters as different as the ‘Protein Man’, Stanley Green, who until his death in 1993, warned commuters and shoppers of the uncontrollable passions aroused by eating too much protein; and Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, whose courage and deep principal, borne at great personal peril, is symptomatic of London at its best. The same embrace of difference is on display in the collections of fashion and music, in which for the best part of half a century, London has been a world beater with no sign of its energies waning; quite the reverse. Pamphlets, magazines and books from the 1960s onwards abound, just as they do in the galleries dedicated to the 1700s. London’s incontinence of ideas, innovation and communication has been a constant for centuries.

All in all, the gallery succeeds, not so much as an encyclopedic trawl of London’s history, more in summoning up the dissenting, tolerant mentality that is at the heart of London’s cultural and economic success. No city has been so successful and influential for so long. While other European cities such as Paris or Rome or Berlin seem mere shadows of their former greatness, replaced by the vigorous new conurbations of Asia and Latin America, London swaggers on. The Museum of London’s new galleries demonstrate how and why.

Our Reviews Editor, Juliet Gardiner, reviewed the new Galleries of Modern London on BBC Radio 4's Front Row programme on May 27th.

Galleries of Modern London
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN

- The Sackler Hall © Museum of London
- Wellclose Square prison cell, 1750 © Museum of London

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