Another brick in the wall

It’s only when you leave a place that you truly appreciate what it has to offer. That’s undoubtedly the case with London. The traffic, pollution and over-crowding wear you down, but after a trip to less manic shores, I’m really appreciating the city’s surreal quality.

With my appetite reawakened, I was intrigued by a TV news item about the Museum of London’s latest gallery, London Now. Tory hard-liners were “outraged” that a museum co-funded by central government and that bastion of tradition, the Corporation of London, had given room to John Bartlett’s History Painting. For in a genre made great by nineteenth-century French academics, Bartlett has depicted the confrontation of 31 March 1990, when anti-Poll Tax rioters had a running battle with police in Trafalgar Square. A surprising addition to the collection, but not the only surprise down at London Wall.

With immaculate timing, the exhibition designers at Met Studios invited me to see the new gallery, and meet the curator. They were proud to show off their “infoduct”, a piece of directional signage that actually works.

In museums, I’m simultaneously paralysed by information overload and fearful that if just one label is left unread I’ll have failed to do my homework. My mood veers between lethargy and impatience. I’m also in two minds about objects. Just how much respect does an object deserve? Should an artefact which was never intended to be contemplated be raised to the level of art? In such a case, the series of “wonders” installed in the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum are aggrandised by David Chipperfield’s attention to detail, but in the process appear unnatural.

Then there’s the other side of the argument. Is the value of a decorative item compromised if it is displayed as part of a reconstruction? Are museums in danger of undermining authenticity in order to entertain via make-believe?

The Museum of London is both a treasure house and an educational resource. But it’s a tricky building to navigate, and with a chronology which grinds to a halt in 1945, the danger is that young audiences can’t make that all important connection between history and the present.

Met Studio’s solution is bold and appropriate. A green-illuminated duct, complete with multimedia installations, acts as a metaphoric yellow brick road though the exhibits, which you can stick to for a rapid tour, or veer off to investigate areas in greater detail. Adding a techno-glow to the concrete bunker, it’s striking and extremely theatrical.

Walling through eras treated to an appropriate visual patina, by the time you hit “now” the eye is ready for an injection of light and colour. And that’s exactly what you get, via theatrical flats, which house soundbite facts, visuals and objects. Packaging is used to make a point, that 90 tons of litter are cleared by Westminster Council daily, while Dinky toys, originally manufactured in London, illustrate the fact that between 1978 and 1988, 100 extra cars joined London’s jam every day!

As the gallery is, in fact, an ex-corridor, doing justice to 50 years of history would have caused a bit of a squeeze. So, as the museum’s curator Cathy Ross explained, they decided to work backwards, asking questions relevant to modern London life, and looking for causes and events which may explain our current state of affairs.

The section Is London Too Old To Live In? focuses on housing and the downside of living in a historic centre. The percentage of derelict housing stock (13.5 per cent) and the mistaken initiatives which aimed to combat the situation, illustrated by the Ronan Point disaster, are presented as facts which an audience of all ages will find easy to digest and hopefully reflect on.

Tackling difficult social, economic and environmental issues, the displays manage to be straight- forward, non-patronising, relevant and complete with gorgeous eye candy. And much of the credit for the level of engagement is down to the design. Project manager Ned Philips, senior designer Alan Ward and graphic designer Helen Lyon spent two years working with the museum team, who as Philips put it, “knew exactly what they wanted to say”. Their treatment is enlivening, entertaining and thoughtful.

It’s good to see a credible institution stick its neck out, and work with a bunch of designers who care about content. And in the process add credence to the curators’ claim that London is a centre of creativity.

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