At the end of 2022, the Museum of London closed its doors after nearly 50 years at its location near the Roman Wall, and is currently moving to a site in West Smithfield to re-open in 2025 with a new name - The London Museum. This free museum tells the story of London from pre-historic to contemporary times and is packed with some fascinating exhibits, and you will now have to wait a few years until you can see it again.
The Museum of London opened to much fanfare in 1976 with the amalgamation of collections from around the capital. Located in the Barbican Estate just north of St Paul's, it is housed in a rather brutalist area of brick, glass and mid 20th century modernity, long on concrete and short on embellishment.
However unattractive it is from the exterior, it is the contents that matter, and there are some wonderful exhibits inside. The museum was designed to be linear, with only one way to walk through it, following the chronology of the city from pre-history to recent. The first gallery starts, as you would expect, with London's ancient past - 'London before London, 450,000 BC - AD50'.
This starts with bones from animals that are no longer associated with London - elephants, lions, monkeys and hippos, who lived in the area during the Ice Age with skulls, antlers and bones on display. Next are the flint tools, beautifully shiny, animal bones nicked with butchery marks, hand axes found where they fell 300,000 years ago, a full mammoths tusk, the foot of an elephant who got trapped and died while trying to cross the channel over 200,000 years ago, spear tips, and tools made from flints and antlers.
There is the top of a skull of an adult male who died 3600BC which was found by a mudlarker, some beautiful stone maceheads and as we move forward through time, decorated beakers which may have been thrown into the Thames with offerings to the ancestors inside as the owners stood on a wooden jetty dating from 1700BC, London's first bridge. Moving forward again we start to get bronze and gold with earrings, armlets, razors and tweezers.
The arrival of the Romans in AD50 produces imported goods, such as pottery which was copied by the locals, and an unusual burial, the Harper Road woman from AD50 found in Southwark, an unusual one as it was a burial rather than a cremation, iron nails found around the body show she was buried in a wooden coffin, with a bronze mirror and a pottery wine jar.
As you would expect, the Roman Gallery produces statuary - some of which had later been reused as building material across the capital. There is a stone legionary found in the city wall, a centurion's tombstone found during the rebuilding of a church in Ludgate, pillars and tablets and marble inscriptions. There is graffiti from Quintus who scratched his name into the wall in the public baths, a complete horse skeleton from the 2nd century with harness, bridle, cart fittings and all the accessories, gold coins found in a safety deposit box hidden under the floor of a Roman home and never retrieved, mosaics and everyday objects shown in context with room displays of both poor and wealthy inhabitants of Londinium.
There are many objects found at or near the Mithraeum, the Temple to Mithras which was the site of a secretive, underground cult who worshipped the god Mithras across Roman Europe. You can visit the remains of the temple, for free, which is just a 15 minute walk away. Here in the museum though you will find the original central medallion from the temple of the 'bull slaying scene' as well as stone altars, busts, figurines and sculptures all from the Temple.
As we move into the 5th century, London is deserted, with inhabitants moving away and the city falling into ruin. Newcomers, the Saxons, set up home in the countryside around the crumbling city. We move through the Saxons where there are some beautiful items on display - brooches of bronze, decorated with gold and garnets, iron cauldrons, imported pottery. They established Ludenwic to the west of the Roman city, building a Christian church, St. Paul’s, inside the Roman walls. Ludenwic survived until the Viking invasions in the 9th century and then like Londinium, passed into the pages of history, becoming Lundenburgh under King Alfred.
We move to the medieval period with colourful painted glass beakers from Italy, glazed jugs from France, metalwork from Germany, even woollen stockings, coins, seals, rings, buckles. Texts start to make an appearance, with pages from Chaucer and Greek grammar books for schools. The presence of religion steps up, with reliquaries, a vast oak church door, statues, crosses, alms dishes, collection bowls and a bible.
On display is a beautiful golden cup called The Grace Cup, presented to the Guild of Barber Surgeons by Henry VIII. London Delftware makes an appearance, as does a plate which once belonged to Pepys, one of only three still in existence.
The Civil War with its muskets, armour and pikes leads to the plague with mourning rings, a plague spoon, clay pipes smoked by Londoners thinking tobacco could cure them of the plague, and which you can still find mudlarking on the Thames.
There is a room dedicated to the Great Fire of London, painted with vivid red walls and filled with remnants - a pair of ash filled child's shoes, a bible with burnt pages, melted glass, pottery melted and stuck together, decorative tiles found in Pudding Lane where the fire started, which had been swept as rubble into a cellar after the fire, a fire bucket and a plaque which had been attached to the Monument to the Great Fire of London near the Pudding Lane bakery site in 1681, blaming the fire on the Catholics and Robert Hubert, a madman who confessed to starting the fire.
The next gallery is the 18th century where the focus is fashion, shopping and the detritus found from this time - broken crockery, bottles, earthenware, and combs dropped or discarded by Londoners. On display is a sword of honour presented to Lord Nelson by the Corporation of London, his victories in the Nile and at Trafalgar securing overseas trade routes which were so vital to the businesses of London. Its a beautiful piece with a golden handle.
My most favourite part of the whole museum was the prison cell from Wellclose Prison. About 10 x 6 feet and lined with oak planks, this cell was part of a small courthouse near the Tower of London. It was in use around the 1750s and its walls are covered in graffiti and pictures all overlaid from the countless inhabitants of the cell. There are tall ships complete with accurate rigging, trees, birds, a Scots thistle, a gun, anchors and a variety of buildings including a church and pubs with hanging signs.
Next to the cell is a door from the infamous Newgate Prison, near the Old Bailey and in use for over 700 years. This door dates from around 1780 and is a huge, oppressive iron door, covered in locks and rivets.
The displays move to the Victorian and Edwardian, with a street of London businesses - shops, offices, a pub, a pharmacist. The famous Broadstreet pump is centre stage, the source of cholera which led to its discovery and eradication. The suffragettes make an appearance with their banners, rosettes, badges and a glistening colourful brooch given to suffragist Millicent Fawcett in 1913. Cars, Lyons teahouses, the Pearly Kings lead to the geometric outfits of the 1960s, and the smashed guitar of The Clash's bass player.
The museum ends with The Cauldron from the Olympics in 2012 which were hosted in the capital. This was the centrepiece for the games and burned throughout the event, a time of national celebration in the UK when everything seemed to be going well for the country for once. On display with it are the steel stems and petals used in its construction.
It is a fascinating, galloping race through hundreds of thousands of years of London‘s history and one I highly recommend doing. Some of these objects may well go on tour over the next three years, but this is your last chance to see them all together for now. The move to the London Museum, less than half a mile away in the old Smithfield Market, looks to be a promising one, and I just hope they keep some of these wonderful artefacts on display.
Visiting the Museum of London
Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN
Nearest tube stations: St. Paul's and Barbican (both a 5 min walk)
Open daily 10am - 5pm
Free to visit