Monday, August 1, 2011

The Magnificent Museum of London

The Museum of London offers a multi-dimensional mosaic of London’s history. It presents a narrative of London from as early as 300 BC, chronicling both the city’s feats and great misfortunes. It is also extraordinarily interactive (even for a museum) allowing visitors to take a stroll through a life-sized Pleasure Garden, watch a film of the London fire blazing complete with eyewitness accounts, touch a prison door, and listen to a narrative of communication in London through the receiver of an antique telephone. Peering through the window of an antique glass shop on one of the museum’s many true-to-life streets, I felt just plain overwhelmed. Standing amid centuries of London’s artifacts, I recalled Henry James’ take on the city: “It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable or cheerful or easy or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.”

The true brilliance of the Museum of London is that it manages to portray this city’s magnificence through its resilience. The museum proudly showcases more than a few disasters that have impeded London’s development, from fire to plague. An exhibit on the Black Death, for instance, notes that the plague killed off nearly half of London’s population; however, it also maintains that, during this time, London established a government and also accrued the most wealth it had ever had. And though it took 140 years to wipe out half of the city, only seventy years later, in 1558, London had become so repopulated that its citizens began to develop suburbs. Another exhibit, on the century between Elizabeth I’s reign and the Great Fire, calls the1550s-1660s “one of the most turbulent times in London’s history,” with the Great Fire of 1666 destroying 30,000 homes over the course of three days. Amongst its images of the dirty aftermath of the flames, the exhibit also relates that shopkeepers whose shops and homes had been destroyed resumed business in makeshift booths in the embers. The city began rebuilding as soon as the fire was extinguished. By 1700, London was not only back on its feet, but it had taken over Paris, too.

This long history of resilience, the contrasts of development and tragedy, luxury and strife, fortifies London. It seems that each stone that paves this city has seen both destruction and victory: when the senseless plague struck, Londoners established government to create order; when a fire burned the city, its people rebuilt their lives on the ashes. And, as connected as these instances are to modern London, they are all too easily forgotten in the rushed humdrum of London life. This is precisely why the Museum of London is valuable: the museum immerses visitors in history so that we cannot forget. We are forced to pause and reflect on the stones beneath our feet, on the struggle and great joy that has been singed into each one. And with reflection comes appreciation. As Virginia Woolf wrote while contemplating the city, “I stand for a moment under the pavement in the heart of London…the great avenues of civilization meet here and strike this way and that. I am in the heart of life.”

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