Capital investment: Inside the new Galleries of Modern London beneath Museum of London

By Ben Miller | 24 May 2010
A photo of the darkened inside of a gallery set up with a tree and figures in costumes in an enchanted garden

(Above) The Pleasure Gardens give a theatrical heart to the swish design of the new Galleries of Modern London

Gallery: Galleries of Modern London, Museum of London, London, opens May 28 2010

Entering The Pleasure Gardens, a haunted house-style recreation of a Georgian playground at the centre of the new look Galleries of Modern London, feels like walking into a theatrical underworld.

Mannequins in glass cabinets shadow the darkened, leafy pavilion while period actors saunter around on a big screen behind the trees. The gorgeous costumes the dummies wear are almost outdone by their hats, designed by haute couture Messiah Philip Treacy and Yaseman Hussein, whose metal, horn-pervading wigs are straight out of a gothic fairytale.

A photo of a man in a suit presenting a gallery and smiling

Professor Jack
Lohman has overseen
the progress of the ambitious redesign

"It takes on this immersive place of the pleasure garden," observes Professor Jack Lohman, the globetrotting Museum Director who has led the campaign to rebuild the Galleries since being appointed in 2002.

"People of all ages and walks of life came together to share this space. It's a really great place to stay in – you can enjoy its beauty and impact, but the longer you stay here the more details you pick up.

"The film and lighting goes through early evening to daylight. It's fantastic to see it come together and really do what we hoped it would do."

A photo of a mock-up Victorian street inside a museum

The Victorian Walk

A re-enactment of a "big, paid attraction" for opulent fun-seekers contrasts wildly with the impoverishment we've just seen in Expanding City.

The opening display of three new sections the Galleries are split into focuses on the capital's globally-informed development between 1670 and 1850. Contextualising and setting London's trade and empirical place in the world is a key theme for Lohman's team of curators and designers.

An 1857 terrestrial globe charts voyages undertaken by the likes of Captain Cook next to first editions of 18th century books by radicals railing against the slave trade. Craft plates glow, encased in the floorboards beneath our feet, and an eerie 1750 prison cell is scarred by graffiti etchings. Touch screens and levers stimulate a storytelling aura.

A photo of a decadent gold coach inside a museum

The Lord Mayor's
State Coach, which is still used in the annual Lord Mayor's Show, now overlooks cars passing the Museum

"The multi-purpose use of every area has been part of the brief here," adds Lohman. "We always want it to be different when people come in – it's not just static displays."

Physically and conceptually, the ground floor of the Museum of London has always covered a lot of ground.

Running a timeline gauntlet between the Great Fire of London and the start
of the 20th century, it crams in enough precious books, vintage cars and mock-up city streets to more than justify the 25% increase in space afforded by this £20 million redesign, completed just in the nick of time if you subscribe to current political expectations when it comes to major venue projects.

A photo of people walking under a set of LED displays inside a museum

The Sackler Hall

The most obvious and immediate enhancement realised in the gleaming overhaul is the addition of a post-1914 narrative, presented in a World City gallery which includes retro to-die-fors from Swinging London, mobile phones the size of bricks, an Alexander McQueen pop-art pashmina of the Queen and a stack of records.

Around the corner, in the Sackler Hall, a dizzying shimmer of LED lights and displays whirl a blur of animations and statistics above your head. They draw feeds from various all-powerful news networks to provide an enlightening set of facts and figures, from London's nation-eclipsing energy demands to the precise number of locals sleeping rough or being diagnosed with Chlamydia each day.

The idea is to entice visitors through a marriage of futurism and ancient artefacts, but the old favourites still hold sway.

Charles Booth's late 19th century poverty map covers the floors and walls of an entire room in the People’s City area, and flagship juggernaut The Lord Mayor's State Coach has been repositioned in a gallery at eye level, distracting motorists as they flash past on the grey roads outside.

When it opens to the public on Friday, Lohman is confident it will be well-received. "Touch wood we’re fairly positive it's going to work well,"
he says.

"We've trialled it on specific days, and we had 700 people in at one point.
We hope people can engage with it in a really material way – that's quite key to things for us."

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