My Love Affair with the Museum of London

Seven years ago, I fell in love: not with my now-wife, but with the Museum of London. Cultural history? Check. Digital engagement? Check. Archaeological archive, with bonus mudlarking? Check

I first came across the Museum of London during my MA in Medieval Studies at the University of York, many moons ago. As part of my research, I asked if I could view some of the artefacts in the museum’s extensive collection. To my great surprise, the museum said yes, and down I went to London, fresh faced and fancy-free, to experience one of the defining moments of my short time in academia.

I’ll never forget how it felt to handle a fourteenth century pilgrim badge: to hold a seven hundred year-old object that you’ve read, written, and hypothesised about. It really was amazing, and I’ll always be hugely grateful to the Museum for the experience.

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Medieval pilgrim badge
After my appointment and with some time to kill before my train back to York, I wandered round the museum, and was seriously impressed at the standard of work and care that clearly goes into the collections.

Seven years on, and – like a good friend you’ve not seen in years – I felt able to pick up from where I’d left off. My personal highlights are the medieval section (albeit a little out dated, it boasts a fantastic collection of everyday objects that Londoners would have used), and The People’s City, which explores one of the most significant and defining periods of London’s colourful history.

… But I digress. The purpose of this blog is to review the Museum’s latest offering; it’s headline exhibition, Fire! Fire!

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A seventeenth century fire fighting hat
‘I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see your city devoured in such a short space of time’.

Curator Meriel Jeater isn’t wrong. Fire! Fire! certainly does its best to capture the horror and devastation of the city’s Great Fire of 1666, focussing on the story of ordinary Londoners caught up in extraordinary times. From the smouldering piles of rubble where whole streets once stood, to the destruction of people’s livelihoods and homes, this exhibition certainly packs a punch.

Whilst fewer than ten Londoners lost their lives in the fire, many had little to live for once the flames had died out. Left homeless and destitute, Fire! Fire! explores the psyche of those who lost it all. Where did they go? How did they feel? Who did they blame? You can even play an interactive game which maps out your options on how to stop the fire before it reached your house, albeit often in vain.

It also highlights the resilience of Londoners – a common thread throughout the Museum’s collections – in rebuilding their beloved city, the legacy of the fire (namely Wren’s London) and improved fire fighting techniques. The ironic similarity between the medieval Parish system, which saw neighbours banding together to fight fires, and the post-recession notion of ‘Big Society’ was also not lost on me…

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The remnants and x-rays of an ironmonger’s stock, lost in the fire
Fire! Fire! begins in re-imagined Pudding Lane, where the inferno began. It is here where we are treated to our first of many excellent digital displays, the design of which was inspired by seventeenth century engravings. The display depicts the owners of a bakery waking up to discover a fire in their house. Next up, we enter a giant oven, with a London map from the period ingeniously projected onto dough. This second digital display tracks the spread of the fire in real-time, highlighting the disastrous impact of the fire on the city, in such a short space of time.

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Born and bread in London: an innovative digital display
Another stand-out feature of the exhibition is the wider engagement the Museum is undertaking with young people, using Minecraft. Over a coffee, Digital Learning Co-ordinator and Project Lead Josh Blair told me:

‘With a global reach of over one hundred million people, Minecraft is one of the most popular video games of all time. It’s reach, combined with its immersive nature, make it an ideal engagement tool for children, families and young people looking to learn more about the Great Fire of London’.

‘This will be an entirely immersive experience – you’ll be able to walk down Pudding Lane, learn firsthand about the factors that sparked the flames, and see the fire spread throughout the city. So far, the reception from the Minecraft community has been really positive. We are hopeful that we’ll be able to reach an entirely new audience using this platform’.

An ambitious new initiative, the Museum of London is one of the first museums in the UK to use this platform in this manner. The game will be released in three stages; the first, which will be available from July 29, is based on an original map from the period of burnt London. The map will play as a treasure hunt, with players exploring the city in search of audio clips, which explain how the events of the fire unfolded.

The second map, which will be released in September for the 350th anniversary of the fire, will present a series of mini-games: evacuating residents, fighting fires, and meeting famous figures from the time. The final stage will be released in February 2017, where gamers will have the opportunity to craft their own revitalised London. Upon release, all maps will be downloadable to a PC or Mac from the Museum of London’s website.

Check out the preview below – it looks amazing!

Suffice to say, this exhibition is pretty darn cool (pun fully intended). If you’re in London, go check it out!

Fire! Fire! runs from July 23 2016 – April 17 2017. Book your tickets here

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