Socialist Worker

Museum of London: not just a walk down memory lane

Siân Ruddick explores the newly refurbished Museum of London’s history of the city

Issue No. 2210

Map of poverty by Charles Booth in the 19th century

Map of poverty by Charles Booth in the 19th century


The Museum of London is home to a beautifully curated history of the civilisation that grew up around the River Thames.

The museum, on the edge of the City of London, is an amazing public resource that has just had a refurbishment – and it’s free.

The redesigned museum makes interesting use of sound. Background noise is played through speakers to help visitors get a feel for what the city sounded like at that time in history.

So in the early and Roman periods we hear the breeze in the trees and birdsong.

In the Victorian period the exhibition really comes alive. The sound of horses’ hooves hitting the

cobblestones and the shouts of traders meet your ears as you walk through a dimly lit and narrow alley of shops.

But the museum is not just a walk down memory lane. The issues of poverty, life expectancy and criminal punishment were prevalent through the medieval to modern periods.

A huge gulf between rich and poor appeared in the city from 1550 onwards.

Huge slums developed as people flocked to London searching for work and prosperity, while grand playhouses and banqueting halls sprang up for the few who could afford them.

Parallels

A map of poverty, painstakingly undertaken by Charles Booth in the 19th century, still has many parallels with today.

Tower Hamlets, for example, was one of the poorest areas at the time and remains in that position now.

A sense of struggle also runs through the museum. The section on the suffragette movement is engaging and accessible.

Banners from the Women’s Social and Political Union hang alongside posters for rallies and newspapers of the movement.

Screens show images of Emmeline Pankhurst and other suffragettes protesting and being carted off by the police, while speeches are played.

During my visit I met Shupra, a teaching assistant, who was taking around a group of six and seven year old children from an east London primary school.

I found Shupra and her multi-racial group in the 1970s section, which is based around the question of immigration and the rising racism of the time.

Shupra told her group, “Your grannies and grandads, mums and dads, came to Britain to work and they worked very hard.”

She pointed to the need for workers at the time, and told the class, “This is now your city, your home. Be proud of everything you and your families do in London.”

She told me, “It is so important that these kids know the real history of immigration in London.

“If racists try and tell them they don’t belong here they have an answer that gives them confidence.”

The section on the struggles against racism is powerfully put together.

Images of multicultural groups of children are projected onto the wall. There are leaflets agitating to “get the police out of Brixton”, “Gays against the Nazis” badges and pamphlets made by the British Black Panthers.

The final section looks at the “challenges facing London today” – such as climate change and the need for better public transport.

Optimism

Unfortunately, the arguments about immigration today and religion aren’t really dealt with properly and leave you with more questions than answers.

It is jarring after the rich context of the rest of the exhibition. This museum is not just about London. It is about the creation of human society – and the constant battle to improve people’s lives at the bottom.

But London does have its own history of resistance and integration that people can be proud of.

There are all sorts of problems facing London today, such as poverty, lack of housing and racism.

But I left the museum with a sense of optimism – that the city’s current inhabitants are capable of continuing the struggles of the past to win a truly equal city.

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN. www.museumoflondon.org.uk


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Reviews
Tue 13 Jul 2010, 17:56 BST
Issue No. 2210
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