London: Port City @ Museum of London Docklands

I will take any excuse to go to Museum of London Docklands because it is only a short DLR ride away from Greenwich Market, home of my beloved Brazilian churros, so when I saw that they had a new exhibition called Port City, I thought, “Churros plus maritime history?! Sign me up!” I normally work on the days the churro stand is there, so I don’t get to visit often, but I had a day of TOIL to use in early March, so I took full advantage and planned to head out east. However, my luck being what it is, there was a Tube strike that day. Fortunately, the DLR was still running so we did manage to get there via a more convoluted route, but because we had to leave for the museum earlier than we were planning due to the longer journey time, I didn’t have time to attire myself in a vintage-inspired nautical outfit, as I otherwise definitely would have. I know, no major loss to the world, but I do like to theme my clothes if possible!

 

Port City is a free exhibition located in Museum of Docklands’ relatively small temporary exhibition space, the same one where I saw the Havering Hoard, Secret Rivers, and many others. It runs until 8 May 2022 (and apparently opened back in October – where have I been?). The exhibition “traces more than 200 years of extraordinary experiences and intense activity on a river that has always been essential to the city’s survival”, though seemed to focus mostly on the 20th century.

 

Obviously, the Thames is a hugely important part of London and probably dear to every Londoner’s heart (certainly my own), but we often don’t think of London still being a major port, not least because we’re inland, but also because most shipping operations these days happen at a “mega port” about thirty miles outside the city, so it was interesting to explore that side of London.

 

My absolute favourite thing in the exhibition, though excessively imperialist by today’s standards, was a map of the world from the perspective of Britain as the centre of the still fairly flourishing empire of the 1920s. I spent about ten minutes examining it on account of the little animals with talk bubbles drawn all over the map, particularly the polar bears. I had just remarked on their being incorrectly located in the South Pole when I noticed one of them had a talk bubble saying, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and another saying, “This is all wrong! We belong at the North Pole!” Nice.

 

There were some interactive elements to this exhibition, though sadly the ambergris pictured above was not one of them. I excitedly reached my hand in the hole to touch it, only to be blocked by plexiglass that was invisible from the side. However, there were a few boxes filled with authentic smells of the docks, some of them surprisingly pleasant. We were the only people in the exhibition, so I was able to pull my mask down for a bit to give them a good old whiff.

I also loved the wall of nautical inspired phrases and London place names. You could pull out different bricks to read how these terms came to be, and I spent a good long while pulling out all of them. By the way, the horrible sounding Mudchute, a stop on the DLR that I’ve mentioned before, was named after muddy engineering overspill, so it was just as unpleasant as the name implies (I don’t think the overspill is there these days, but I suspect it’s still not particularly nice).

 

Before we went into the museum, Marcus commented that the statue that used to stand out front was no longer there, and neither of us could remember who it was depicting. Turns out it was of the slaver Robert Milligan who helped to create West India Docks, the area the museum is in, which was initially built to house sugar processed by enslaved people in the West Indies, and his statue was understandably removed in 2020. So it was helpful that the exhibition mentioned it and saved us the trouble of looking it up!

Apart from the odd snippet of pertinent facts like that, the exhibition was largely object and image driven, with only small amounts of information on the signage, so although it was quite visually engaging and interactive, I would have liked to see more text. I think it would have been interesting if it focused a bit more on the early history of Docklands, as that was a relatively short section before jumping into more recent history, and I tend to prefer Georgian and Victorian history to the 20th century. Also, though it’s a depressing subject, it might have been nice if they’d included more information on how areas like Canary Wharf have turfed out the poor and been turned into the hideous high-rise monstrosities they are today (I absolutely loathe Canary Wharf and Canada Water, in case you couldn’t tell). However, as it was a free exhibition, I really can’t criticise too much, and being the only people inside was an added and delightful bonus, though for the sake of the museum and the very friendly and enthusiastic staff member who greeted us, I do hope their visitor numbers pick up. 3/5 (the churros, as always, were a solid 5/5).

12 comments

  1. Well, let’s not forget the churros – they must get their due. I think the docks would be a fascinating subject, though like you, the earlier centuries intrigue me much more than the 20th.

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