Museum of London | 450,000 Years in 6 Million Objects
Last Updated: 24th January 2020
They would make moving house a lot easier.
Luckily, the ones surrounding the 2,000 year-old settlement of Londinium have stayed put over the years, and you can still admire them while walking over to the Museum of London – a free collection of over 6 million objects that tells the history of London and its people.
The museum first opened in 1976, a hybrid of the exhibits at Guildhall and the ‘London Museum’, a collection of objects housed in Kensington Palace. It’s a little tricky to find, being situated in the middle of a roundabout in a particularly testing patch of the Barbican complex, accessible only via a network of walkways. It’ll only be here for two more years, though, as it’s set to make a new home beneath the grand canopy of Smithfield market, round the corner.
Once inside, it’s thankfully a lot easier to navigate. Like the IKEA of museums, the Museum of London has a one-way layout that takes you on a chronological journey from London’s prehistoric beginnings right up to the modern day. There are free gallery tours every day, but everything’s so well set-out that it’s easy to make your own way round, too. Here’s what you can expect…
1) London Before London
Covering a modest time span of 450,000BC – 50 AD, the museum’s opening gallery is crammed with ancient archeological finds, including intact neolithic pottery, Iron Age chariot wheels, skeletons, weapons, and the 200,000 year-old jaw of a local London mammoth.
2) Roman London
What did the Romans do for us? Well, they founded the city of Londinium as we know it, bridged the Thames, developed it into a major trading port, and helped it become the biggest city in Britain (it didn’t reach that size again for another thousand years). And in this gallery you can see ancient Roman graffiti, tombstones, statues, hoards of gold coins and the sculpted centrepiece of the ancient temple of Mithras found buried under Blitz rubble, now restored beneath the Bloomberg Arcade in Bank.
3) Medieval London
The next thousand years or so were pretty rough for London, being constantly invaded, racked with fire and famine and the site of relentless struggles between rival religions and political parties. On the upside, it makes for a pretty eclectic array of objects – saintly relics; Viking battle axes; and Medieval pointy shoes among them.
4) War, Plague & Fire
If the Middle Ages looked grim, things didn’t get a lot better in the century following the Tudors. There was revolution, bubonic plague, and the Great Fire of London (which, by all accounts, seems to have been anything but ‘great’). This gallery is full of everyday possessions, 17th century fire engines (or ‘buckets’), beautiful old maps and a fully recreated Stuart sitting room.
5) Expanding City
The next 200 years saw some of the greatest extremes in London society – and this section’s home to the original wooden interior of a debtor’s prison cell (complete with inmates’ graffiti), as well as royal jewels, ornamental weaponry and frilly aristocratic fashion.
6) People’s City
Covering the Victorian period and early 20th century, this gallery boasts the art deco elevator doors from Selfridges, huge interactive displays on the suffragette movement and the two world wars, and a fully reconstructed Victorian high street, lined with walk-in shops stocked with authentic antique merchandise.
7) World City
The final gallery’s full of the kind of modern references you rarely see behind museum glass – vespas, iPods, models of the Shard and, er, Tom Daley’s swimming trunks. But it’s also the part of the museum that touches on some of today’s more relevant issues, from societal tensions to radical fashion, advancing technology and youth culture.
Once you’ve exhausted the galleries, there’s also cocktail bar and restaurant overlooking the London Wall, as well as an excellent shop selling quirky London-themed wall art, homeware, stationery and gifts. And if you’re feeling inspired, they even host talks, taxidermy classes, and workshops in skeletal forensics…
If you want to bone up.
NOTE: The Museum of London is open daily 10am-6pm, and is free to enter. Temporary exhibitions are ticketed and start at around £12 – booking ahead is strongly recommended, and you can do that HERE.
Museum of London | 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN
Liked this? Check out our guide to the Best Museums in London