How to spend an afternoon at the Museum of London

The Museum of London is one of London’s smaller and less well known museums, but that doesn’t mean it packs less of a punch.

Unlike some of the bigger, well known museums, the Museum of London is compact, well laid out, and because of its location (and difficulty in finding it – see later!), it’s hardly ever rammed with visitors*. And it’s totally dedicated to the History of London.

How to find it

When I say the Museum of London is in The Barbican, I can hear Londoners shiver with fear. Unless you live or work in the Barbican, you should never go in alone. Because you’ll never come out again. It’s a maze. A miracle of post war engineering that traps all who enter into eternity of wandering trying to find the right way through to Chiswell Street. For non-locals, the Barbican is London’s version of the Bermuda Triangle.

So, although the MoL is actually right on the edge of the Barbican it’s still a wee bit difficult to find out how you get in. It’s “up”. Above the actual road, above a roundabout, and reached only by one of two hidden doors and up some stairs. It’s not well signed at all, so keep your eyes peeled and look for small rainbow signs that lead to some stairs.

Once you’re in

The museum foyer is open plan and welcoming. As it’s free, there’s no need to queue, or buy tickets. On a Saturday, we walked straight past the reception desk and into the first exhibit. It’s easy enough to find your way, once you’re actually in the museum!

Travelling through London’s history

The museum is really well laid out. It’s basically one long pathway throug a timeline of London, from half a million years ago, right up to present day.

Starting when London was just a bog (some would argue it still is) the museum shows interesting finds from the London area.  The start is fascinating.  Flint axes and basic hunting sticks from half a million years ago when the very first East Enders were here; neanderthals, hunting mammoths, proper prehistoric stuff.  And they’ve found them all within miles of where you’re standing, reading about it.  It really does put you back in the past, and brings it to life.

Some old people.  REALLY old people.
Some old people. REALLY old people.
The great thing is that it not only tells you a little snippet about the bone, or pot, or Flint axe, but it tells you when and where it was found.  Not too much info, enough to whet the interest before you get bored.

Some old London Bones
Some old London Bones, probably found somewhere in Bermondsey.

Invasions

While Londoners were hunting and gathering and making some rather nice flint arrowheads, the nice folks on the continent had gotten themselves a civilisation and were exporting it across Europe as was.  The path now takes you to around 50BC for the Roman invasion, and the creation of “Londinium” the first proper settlement on the Thames.

We’re still talking 2 thousand years ago, so the findings are still amazing – pillars, carvings, mosaics, pots, some of which are amazingly intricate.

A Roman Pillar.  That;s a picture next to it, not someone hanging.
A Roman Pillar. That;s a picture next to it, not someone hanging.
There are some models of houses and what it would have looked like, including a map of Londinium, and where the old Roman wall used to surround the old city.  And then….

The Actual London Wall
The Actual London Wall
….you walk around a corner and you’re confronted with the sight of the ACTUAL wall.  Yes, London still has visible Roman ruins that people walk past every day (probably without even noticing).  The wall above was part of the old fortifications of Londinium.  Rome, eat your heart out.

If actual Roman ruins aren’t enough to keep the kids amazed, there are some interactive displays, including stone age houses, and things to touch, move and play with scattered around.

There are bits for the kids to play with
There are bits for the kids to play with
A Glass vase, that has seen better days, but it's thousands of years old, so I'll let it off
A Glass vase, that has seen better days, but it’s thousands of years old, so I’ll let it off

Middle Ages

When the Romans left, Londinium fell into a bit of a slump, and it took a few dreary Middle Age years to get back to a civilisation again.  The museum path takes you forward through these times, spending a bit of space on key times like Tudor times and Henry Viii’s palaces, the Great Plague (complete with model rat), and of course the Great Fire, which was probably the best thing for Plagued London at the time.

War Plague and Fire.  No, it's not Modern London, honest.
War Plague and Fire. No, it’s not Modern London, honest.
Reading about the fire.  London's Burning.
Reading about the fire. London’s Burning.
There’s a lot to read in this section, but only if you want to.  I would have happily spend hours reading up about the English Civil War – something I know absolutely nothing about, and would love to learn about.

Up to date

Still following the path (I meant it when I said it’s well laid out – you can’t get lost here), the timeline takes you into the 17th century, though Victorian Times ( complete with Victorian street, very quaint) and up to the 19th and 20th centuries.  While not strictly limited to London, the exhibits are interesting – old cars, telephones, all the way through to 1960’s fashions and credit cards.

Coming up to more modern times
Coming up to more modern times
And of course, you can’t forget the phone box.  And for those of you younger than 30, these things used to be in London streets before Mobile Phones were invented:

You don't see many of these around now - definitely a museum piece.
You don’t see many of these around now – definitely a museum piece.
Finally, the trail ends in the most up to date way possible – the Museum Shop.  Of course every museum tips you out at the money end, but it’s not ostentatiously Londony, but there are a few interesting souvenirs that I’m sure non locals would love to enjoy.

Fully up to date now - modern Souvenirs.
Fully up to date now – modern Souvenirs.
So, the Museum of London, even for Londoners, really is a little hidden gem.  It’s a fascinating day out, with enough Museum pieces for everyone, from Mammoth tusks to phone boxes.  I’d recommend going on a weekend, when the hoardes are out queuing at the Natural History Museum.

* note: I’ve been on a weekend and on an evening – I wouldn’t like to vouch for business during school hours, as I imagine it’s a magnet for school trips!


3 thoughts on “How to spend an afternoon at the Museum of London

  1. Thanks for posting this – my other half is planning on going to this on Wednesday when you and I are having our blogging lesson. Good to know about the logistics in advance – I have experienced the nightmare of the Barbican before…

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