*** Sharon Ament updates us on what comes next for the Museum of London ***
January has been a hive of activity at the museum following a jubilant and emotional closing celebration for London Wall in December. So many visitors, friends, colleagues, volunteers and supporters joined us for a memorable final farewell. A whopping 78,000 people visited us in our final month, and London Wall’s very last weekend was our busiest ever, with 13,000 visitors. A wonderful testament to how well-loved the museum is and I was inspired and moved to hear so many people’s fond memories from over the years.
With one door closing, we look forward to opening the next, and we have lost no time in the New Year as we march ahead with our preparations for The London Museum in Smithfield. I know from my conversations with the local community that there is huge interest in what comes next for us. What will we be doing over the next three years and how do you go about creating the world’s largest urban history museum?
From one Museum to the next
In just three years we will manage the careful move of half a million unique objects from London Wall, the wholesale reorganisation of our 7-million strong collection across three sites and complete one of the biggest cultural infrastructure projects in Europe. But that’s not all. We will be using this opportunity to digitise much more of our collection to improve online access, revamp our digital offer to befit a world-class modern museum, and grow our audiences at the Museum of London Docklands. Just recently we announced new support from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Digital Accelerator for Arts and Culture, to help us reimagine how people can experience our collections online with 5,000 oral histories being made available for the first time ever. Furthermore, we will be acquiring new objects for display, updating and developing our schools programmes, and engaging thousands of Londoners in the making of the new museum.
Already, our Collections teams are underway with the marathon job of decanting some ten thousand objects from our galleries at London Wall. The honour of taking the first item off display fell to one of our longest-serving members of staff, Chief Technician Cliff Thomas. Cliff joined the museum in 1973 as a 17-year-old apprentice and was one of the first people to set foot in the museum at London Wall before it opened, working early mornings and late nights to get it ready for opening. Behind the scenes, Cliff’s team are instrumental in bringing to life many of the much-loved galleries and exhibitions, so it was great to have him lead us in this momentous next step.
This picture shows Cliff handling the prehistoric flint tranchet axe, the first item to be removed from display, and a long-term loan from the Layton Collection. In use 10,000 years ago, this Mesolithic axe is a wood-working tool used to fell trees and shape the wood, making tools, shelters and boats. It dates back to a time when Greater London was covered in woodlands and inhabited by small groups of hunter gatherers. A distant past in which a landbridge connected Britain with Europe allowing animals and humans to migrate with ease to find the resources they needed. Very little survives from this period, but this axe made from flint is one of the few things that gives us a picture of life long before our own.
The axe is just one of the extraordinary items we hold in our galleries, each with its own unique story and history that needs to be carefully preserved. From delicate objects like archaeological glass, to largescale items like the Olympic Cauldron, Selfridges lift or stonework recovered from significant buildings, each will be managed according to its individual requirements. They will all be removed from display, audited, barcoded and either prepared for the new museum or transferred back into its home store in preparation for crating and transporting when the time comes. It’ll take us two years to complete this process for the 10,000 objects we have on display. Overall we have half a million items at London Wall that need to be carefully audited, digitised, packed up and then transported to their final destination.
The sheer number of objects makes this a mammoth logistical task and by barcoding each item we can keep track of it during the move. There are a myriad of things to consider. The management of 18,000 loans for example, some of which can only be handled by their lenders; pieces that need to be queued – some right away, others later down the line – for display in the galleries at the New Museum; and accessing objects that need specialist machinery for removal. The process has been carefully plotted but the journey won’t always be linear as we juggle competing priorities. Where the flint tranchet axe heralds the beginning of our gallery decant, one of the very last objects to be removed is likely to be large stone sculpture that used to stand over the Pelican Life Insurance Office at 70 Lombard Street and is currently opposite the Olympic gallery. At five metres long and three metres high, removal will require dismantling part of the galleries themselves.
Acquiring new objects to tell London’s stories
Whilst we make headway with the move, we are also continuing to acquire new objects, many of which will go on display for the first time at West Smithfield. This includes items from new archaeological excavations, reactive collecting, and planned programmes focussed on building areas of the London Collection.
You may have seen recent news that our Trump blimp has been undergoing a final test inflation before being officially acquired by the museum. Flown above Parliament Square in 2019 to protest President Trump’s visit, the blimp was gifted to the Museum of London in January 2021. It is a rare challenge to think about the preservation of something akin to a giant beach ball. Over the last couple of years, our conservation teams have been working alongside scientists at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and University College London to analyse the plastic and calculate the best storage and display options. A specialist company in Chelmsford helped us inflate it, check for holes and calculate how long it holds air. As custodians of London’s history, it’s an example of the marvellous variety of work we find ourselves doing day to day to preserve the city’s heritage. Look out for the blimp popping up at West Smithfield in a few years’ time, frankly it will be hard to miss!
Following the huge success of our Harry Kane display, we have also embarked on a contemporary collecting programme that will focus on the capital’s sporting stories through the experiences of Londoners. From some of the oldest professional football clubs to the 2012 Olympics, the city has a rich history in this area and we know it’s a subject people are keen to see more about. With support from ACE, our curators are now on the lookout for new acquisitions that will help us tell stories about our city’s sporting culture. It will include a collecting project with a group of young people and work with Sporting Heritage to consult Londoners about their sporting stories and experiences. Just one of the ways we’ll be engaging people across the city to help shape our new museum.
Embracing sustainable principles
Meanwhile in Smithfield, work continues apace. Important foundational work to make the site structurally sound and restore the 150-year-old historic façades has been completed. Having lain derelict for over 30 years, a lot of work was needed to manage water damage and we’re pleased to have made significant inroads in protecting the site for the future. Looking up you can see the restored windows, brick work and stonework. Overall, we will be preserving 70% of the building fabric, retaining as much of Sir Horace Jones’ original designs as possible, and embracing principles of reduce, reuse and recycle to realise our sustainability ambitions and achieve a BREEAM Outstanding rating for the project.
Below ground, we have excavated an extensive system of vaults (the scale of which was previously unknown) and cleaned 10,000m2 of Victorian brickwork, restoring it to its former glory. Walking into the basement now the atmosphere is compelling. It will be a remarkable place to visit. Called Past Time, these galleries and displays will be the place for everyone to get an historical overview. Here we will showcase stars from our collection including the Cheapside Hoard, the world’s finest collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery in The Goldsmiths’ Gallery. Object rich and beautifully designed, this space will tell the story of London like never before, drawing on the latest academic and expert research.
We have been working on the General Market buildings for a number of years but for me this is the moment that I can really visualise The London Museum in them, as we begin work breaking through the floor of the General Market. This will make room for a sweeping staircase to connect the social spaces of Our Time (dedicated to displays exploring London in living memory) with the spectacular underground spaces of Past Time, which will house 10,000 years of London’s history. It’s hugely exciting to see the building take shape in this way as we realise our plans for the museum.
Making Docklands centre stage
Whilst our teams work simultaneously on this important preparatory work at London Wall and West Smithfield, the Museum of London Docklands will remain an important touchpoint for visitors to see our collections and enjoy a regular programme of events and exhibitions such as Executions which is showing now. Thanks to the Elizabeth line, this is now just 12 minutes away from the Barbican. I urge you all to visit.
Eagle-eyed readers among you will know that Douglas Gilmore was appointed as our first Managing Director for Docklands back in April, following roles at the Ashmolean Museum and the National Gallery. He will be leading the charge to develop this important museum so that it becomes an even more potent part of London’s cultural ecosystem, especially in this its 20th year. 2023 started well with our annual Lunar New Year festival and there will be more to come in the months ahead as we unveil plans to celebrate this landmark anniversary. For me, free museums are hugely important especially at times when people are facing huge financial pressures. I am proud that more and more people are visiting and proud that we provide such an effective way to engage with history.
Searching for stylish treasures
We have an energetic year ahead if the fanfare following the announcement of our next major exhibition Fashion City: How Jewish Londoners shaped global style, is anything to go by. This show opens at the Museum of London Docklands on 13th October.
From East End tailors, to the couture salons of the West End, Fashion City will tell the story of Jewish designers, makers and retailers responsible for some of the most recognisable looks of the 20th century. Those who fought against the odds to become leading figures in their industries, founded retail chains still present on the high street today, and whose businesses boosted the British post-war economy. It will be the first time in 20 years that the museum’s extensive Dress & Textile collection will be at the centre of a display.
The announcement included a public call for anyone who knows the location of pieces created by designers including Mr Fish, Otto Lucas, Cecil Gee, Neymar or Madame Isobel and worn by stars including David Bowie, Sean Connery, and Muhammad Ali. Please do rummage around in your wardrobes and get in touch if you have any information at all. The team would love to hear from you via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have embarked on an exhilarating and important journey to build a fantastic new museum for the London with Londoners. Over the next few years we’ll be sharing updates along the way through our newsletter, on social media and with you here in Barbican Life.
We hope Barbican residents will be some of the first to join us for our festival around West Smithfield in 2025 and when doors open to The London Museum in 2026. In the meantime, please join us for a fantastic programme of events, exhibitions and displays at the Museum of London Docklands and don’t forget to visit Executions which is on until 16th April.