Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
Published November 28th 2014
Enter The Capital's Past
Museum of London (Part 2)
Museum of London
Last summer I paid my first visit to the Museum of London, but it was so big that I was only able to cover half the permanent galleries. I told myself that one day I would return to cover the other half, and it may have taken over a year, but I finally did it. don't like to rush into these things, what can I say?
The entrance to the Museum of London is quite grand and unique. It requires an escalator to get up to an overpass, which takes you to a kind of circular courtyard that imitates the shape of the once London Wall built in the time of Roman Britain. The curved wall is used to display teasers about the special exhibitions inside. Last time it featured urban art, but this time, it was full of text. At first glance it appeared to be quotes, but then I saw paragraphs, narratives, and familiar names. This was a Sherlock Holmes short story.
There is currently a Sherlock Holmes Exhibition running until the 12th April, but as it is a ticketed event, I did not go to it. There was still plenty of Sherlock to see in the foyer. On the right hand side I saw futuristic looking doorways. Each doorway had a code that you have to decipher in order to find out which short story it represents.
The first thing that drew me into the gift shop was a stand full of Christy's hats: top hats, bowler hats, tweed caps, and Holmes's signature detective cap. They were a lot of fun to try on, and I was enamoured with the tweed cap, which was just the right size. But this is Christy's remember, so things don't come cheap. Unable to justify spending £39 on headwear, I reluctantly put it down. If you do have money to splash about though, you've certainly got a fancy dress costume on your hands. They also have Sherlock Holmes's rain coat and his silky dressing gown for £249.
In the realms of affordability, there are lots of Sherlock Holmes books, including the original short stories by Sir Conan Doyle, the Moriarty series by Anthony Horowitz, books related to the television series with Benedict Cumberbatch, and factual books about the exhibition.
For the fun side of Sherlock, you can buy a Sherlock Holmes board game, and Holmes and Watson teddy bears. There are also many non-Holmes related things to buy from the gift shop too.
Talking about bears, just before you enter the first gallery, you will find Sherlock Bear, a statue that is part of the Paddington Trail.
London Before London
The first gallery looks at London before it was London, I.E. prehistoric times. Unfortunately there were at least four school groups at the museum on the day I visited, and this section was chocker-block with primary kids. All very well behaved, but al preventing me from seeing a lot of what was on display, taking photos, or reading the information boards. Some of the things I was able to get a look at though, were prehistoric animal remains, amongst which included a bear skull, an auroch skull, and a mammoth foot skeleton.
There were also skeletal remains of people, one of which they used to reconstruct a digital image of how they would have looked when alive. Many other items dug up include tools, weapons, and armour. What was particularly intriguing was a horned helmet. This section also looked at the geography of the area at this time, in particular, how much bigger the Thames was.
Moving seamlessly through into Londinium, I entered Roman times, where there were lots of miniature models showing how the layout of the polis (city state) would have been. There was the public baths, harbour, agora (market place), town hall, farmland, and homes, all built around each other in a very linear and organised way.
You then got to see life size models of what these homes would look like from the inside. First it showed a poor person's small kitchen, and then the large living space of a rich family.
The most impressive part of this section was the view from the window, which was strategically paced to give a direct view of what remains of the London Wall.
Religion was a very important part of Roman life, and there were all different kinds emerging during their long reigning empire. Most familiar are the Olympian gods, like Jupiter, Juno, Mars, etc. Londinium, Mithraism and Zoroastrianism were very popular too. The controversial of all, was of course, Christianity, which led to many persecutions.
Persecution, disease, and war were all sure fire causes of early death in Roman times, and excavations have uncovered the skeletons of babies, teenagers, and young adults. One of these bodies was that of a woman in her twenties. She was found buried in Spitalfields inside a rare limestone sarcophagus containing a lead. The goods she buried with tells us a lot about her; for example, bay leaves, wool, silk, and god thread indicate she must have been from a wealthy family.
After the fall of the Roman Empire we enter Medieval London, covering 410 CE – 1500s. Starting with the Anglo Saxons, visitors get to learn about the founding of Lundenwic, a port town built in the 600s, but abandoned two centuries later when Vikings attacked.
Children enjoyed investigating a Saxon hut, which would make a very enjoyable play den today, but not somewhere you would like to call a permanent home.
St Paul's Cathedral is not very far away from the Museum of London, and its construction began after the original London Anglo Saxon cathedral burnt down in a fire in 1087. Building the new Norman cathedral was a very slow process, which was not completed until the 1320s. At the time it was the tallest building in England, with spires four hundred feet high.
During the Medieval period your life was pretty much determined from the moment you were born. Your class and gender played a large role in the type of education you got (if any at all) and the profession you went into.
An interactive game at the museum allows you to pick a character, and then make decisions that determine the outcome of your life. If you pick something that wouldn't work, however – e.g. a woman wanting to become a butcher, it will tell you that this is not an option, and you discover how limited your options were.
London's darkest period in history is probably that of between 1346 – 1353, when Black Death struck. After wiping out about half the city, the population remained at an all time low for two hundred years. Recovery was slow, but in the end businesses and trade began to flourish once more, and people were wealthier than they had been before the plague began. The church complained about a decline in morals with citizens becoming extravagant, wearing tight clothes and expensive shoes.
The church decided to bring in a dress code that meant you could only wear clothes befitting of your sex and class. If you disobeyed these rues, you got a heft fine. In a display cabinet, I saw a tatty hairnet, knitted cap, leather belt, child's shirt, wire frame for a woman's headdress, and shoes. Shoes in the fifteenth century were not waterproof, so people often wore pattens underneath to protect their feet getting wet. They did not look very comfortable.
Children can have a go trying these things on in an activity box. There's a boy's leather jerkin (type of jacket), pattens, liripipe (pointed hood), and woman's headdress.
We then enter the reign of Henry the eighth, who dissolved the monasteries when he was not allowed to divorce Catherine of Aragon. When religious houses were demolished, everything was left for grabs. Londoners scavenged for scrap materials to sell on or turn into other things. For example, when Merton Priory was demolished in 1538, the stone was used for Nonsuch Palace four miles away. Carters were paid eight pence per ton to transport it there. They transported three thousand six hundred tons in total.
War, Plague, and Fire
The next section covers the Arts, including Shakespeare and his contemporaries, as well as pottery, and sculpture. It covers the history of the monarch, looking at James I, Charles I, Cromwell, and Charles II, before moving on to the second blight of The Plague. Starting in 1665, after seven months it had killed off a fifth of London's population. Although it began to show signs of decline, it was not until The Great Fire of London that it was finally wiped out. A blessing in disguise, perhaps, but it came at a heavy price. It destroyed over thirteen thousand homes and eighty-seven, including St Paul's Cathedral. When the scaffolding caught fire, the lead roof melted and the cathedral burnt down, destroying everything inside, including books held in the crypt kept there for safe keeping. An old woman taking shelter there also died.
It took four days for the fire to die out, and fifty years to rebuild the city. The Cathedral was not completed until 1710. To this day no one truly knows who or what caused the fire, but fingers were pointed at just about everyone: the French, the Dutch, Catholics, Thomas Farriner (whose baker the fire started from), and Robert Hubert. Hubert confessed to the crime, but it was obvious he could not have been responsible because he was not in London at the time. Despite this, the authorities condemned him to death.
The London Cauldron
I then went downstairs to the galleries I had been to before. There was one new one, however, and that celebrated London's 2012 legacy. It shows process of how the Olympic Cauldron was designed. It is made up of two hundred and four individual crafted copper blocks representing each competing nation.
At the climax of the opening ceremony, stems rose out from the centre of the Olympic stadium, each holding a fragment of the flame, which came together as one.