London: “Secret Rivers” @ Museum of London Docklands


I went to Oslo and Gothenburg a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve got lots of great (and some not so great) museums to show you from there, but I’m going to first take care of some temporary exhibitions in London that will probably be close to ending by the time I get done posting about Oslo (we went to a LOT of museums), starting with “Secret Rivers” at the Museum of London Docklands, which runs until 27th October.  In many ways, I think I prefer the Docklands Museum to its Museum of London sister site, but I don’t often get out to that part of London, so I was pleased that this exhibition would give me the excuse to do so, not least so I could detour by Greenwich Market and get one of my beloved Brazilian churros.


This exhibition is free to visit, and is pleasingly just the right size – large enough to make it worth the trip, but not so big that I got tired of looking around before we finished. Also pleasingly, it is located on the ground floor, so we didn’t have to hunt it down somewhere in the belly of the museum. The exhibition opened with a map of the Thames and its tributaries, including all of the “secret rivers” featured in the exhibition: the Effra, Fleet, Lea, Neckinger, Tyburn, Walbrook, Wandle, and Westbourne (there’s a fun quiz on their website to determine which river you are – I’m the Walbrook, which except for the spiritual stuff is basically accurate). I think most Londoners will have heard of at least some of these – certainly the Fleet because of the famous street bearing its name – but they are secret in the sense that the rivers were wholly or partially buried under London (mostly during the Georgian or Victorian eras as the city got more built up), and some are only now, after many centuries, undergoing regeneration.


I have to admit that though I am not the most interested in rivers from a nature point of view, I think they’re super interesting for their role in London’s history (especially the Thames, which I have a real soft spot for, though of course that is not hidden), so I was definitely keen to learn more. The exhibition briefly profiled each river, showing its course on a map and explaining how/why it had become “secret,” and displayed a handful of artefacts relating to each river, often things that had been pulled out of it. Some of this was simply garbage, but there were also things like axe heads, swords, religious badges, metal oil lamps used for Diwali, and even a skull.


Since human waste was a big part of why most of the rivers disappeared, there was also a mock-up of a three seat privy (the seat of a real one was on display) so I could sit down and give you my obligatory pretend pooping face (apparently I also flail my arms, based on the way one has completely disappeared). One of the more interesting sections was on Jacob’s Island, a slum formerly located in Bermondsey where the Thames and Neckinger met. Dickens used Jacob’s Island as the inspiration for “Folly Ditch” in Oliver Twist, where Bill Sikes died, but according to the exhibition, he actually made it sound a bit nicer than it would have been in real life. The whole thing was a warren of ramshackle shanties with secret tunnels so its inhabitants could escape the police, and residents were forced to get drinking water from the same area where they emptied their chamber pots. Yum. I have a weird fondness for London tap water (I swear it tastes more full-bodied and delicious than the water in other cities, probably because it’s clogging my guts with limescale), but that’s a bridge too far even for me.


Not all of the rivers profiled here were in slum areas – the Westbourne ran through classy parts of town like Chelsea, and its banks were home to an upmarket version of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens called Ranelagh Gardens, which offered a range of china souvenirs to its visitors, many of which were on display here. However, even rich people produce effluvia, and it too eventually became clogged with shit. Today a much cleaner version of it feeds the Serpentine in Hyde Park, though it is mostly buried.


Marcus took a particular interest in the section on the Wandle, as he is one of the volunteers who has helped to clean it. There used to be a tonne of industry on the Wandle, which runs through Merton, including William Morris’s factory and the Ram Brewery, and it was in a pretty sorry state, but has gone massive regeneration in the last couple of decades, and is now mostly pretty pleasant (save for the occasional discovery of a headless torso), though I’m sure Marcus and everyone else would appreciate it if we could stop carelessly disposing of plastics that make their way into the rivers.


There were a few interactive bits in this exhibition, like chamber pots with authentic smells and an installation where you could listen to the sound of the Thames at Windsor, but it was mostly a lot of text, nicely broken up by images and artefacts, which I was totally fine with, especially the excellent “anecdotal view” of the City, shown above. Marcus was even able to pick up a Wandle pin badge in the shop, though I would have liked to see more exhibition-specific things rather than generic London tat (though their shop is tiny, and I am all too aware of the challenges of ordering in custom merchandise for a special exhibition, but I think they probably could have worked with a local artist to produce some river-themed prints. They did have a couple on sale, but they were tiny A4 sized ones where you couldn’t even see the detail from a distance). However, overall it was truly a riparian entertainment with a good flow (ha!), where I learned about some rivers that I didn’t know existed before visiting (probably exactly what they were aiming for!), and got a kick out of all the scatological humour, like Ben Jonson’s poem, shown above. 3/5.


On a much less positive note, I also popped in to the Science Gallery to see their latest exhibition on Dark Matter, and I wish I hadn’t even bothered. It was possibly even worse than the last one. The theme of dark matter was really taking the piss – they literally included a jar of air and even worse, a display case filled with nothing, and called it art. Even amongst the pieces I liked, like this really cool map showing all the imaginary islands that had appeared on maps over the centuries with descriptions of how each of the islands had come to be imagined, the connection to dark matter in a scientific sense was tenuous at best. I’m not even bothering to give this one a proper post of its own, because I would struggle to fill it. Pretty lame, Milhouse. 1.5/5.


London: Museum of London Docklands


Well, considering I’d already travelled via the DLR to visit Greenwich, I figured that I might as well carry on by heading up to West India Quay to visit the Museum of London Docklands, formerly known as Museum in Docklands.  I feel that both names are somehow awkward (maybe throw a “the” in there somewhere?), but it is indeed a museum devoted to London’s Docklands, so at least they manage to get the message across.  I went to Museum in Docklands (as it was then called) some years ago for an excellent special exhibit on Jack the Ripper, and with the name change and all, felt it was long-past time for a return trip, especially as I had a vague recollection of authentic smells lurking somewhere within the building.


Model of the old London Bridge. Very cool.

A sign instructed me to “begin my journey on the second floor,” so I naturally obliged.  The first gallery takes you through the history of settlement on the Thames, beginning with the Romans (who I find a bit boring), and fortunately quickly progressing up to medieval London and beyond.  Objects of note include the model of London Bridge, pictured above, which I totally wish still existed (despite the hazards of crossing it (and passing under it, for that matter), though perhaps sans the severed heads of traitors), a whale’s jawbone (I think it was a jawbone.  It was huge!), and models of various historically important ships, such as the Susan Constant (of Jamestown fame).  Scattered throughout were wall-mounted computer screens playing videos that starred Tony Robinson (I suppose I should say Sir Tony Robinson now) exploring many aspects of riverside history. I actually really liked how this section was set up; because it was fairly narrow, and it progressed chronologically, it was easy to make sure I didn’t miss anything.


I passed through a brief recreation of some sort of quayside to get to the next gallery, which had me frantically sniffing the air in anticipation, but it was not yet time for authentic smells.  Rather, I found myself entering the inevitably depressing “London Sugar and Slavery” exhibit.  The collections here were far more extensive than the ones at the National Maritime Museum, and included an interactive feature whereby the lights dimmed in the entire room every 15 minutes or so whilst a recording began playing that discussed the experience of the enslaved, which really did help to set the mood.  I think Museum of Docklands was aiming for a more comprehensive view of the consequences of slavery than the National Maritime Museum, as they discussed the lasting effects of the slave trade, leading up to racism in the present day, which I think was a more meaningful approach.

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Heading downstairs to the “City and River” exhibit meant entering the 19th century to see the burst of new industry on the Thames.  This included information on the Thames Tunnel constructed by good old Brunel the Elder (not his actual name, just what I like to call him.  They did both have an Isambard in their names, after all.), like the neat little paper cutout seen above, and a poster on the glorious Frost Fairs, another sad loss for modern London (though it is quite nice to not have to worry about cholera at least).

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Naturally, there was also some discussion of whaling, but more of the focus was on the colliers (coal ships) from Newcastle et al, which allowed for the full explosion of Victorian industry.  However, I couldn’t devote my full attention to this section as “Sailortown” was beckoning to me from across the room, with its dim lighting giving the promise of horrible smells.


Oh, Sailortown was every bit as glorious as I remembered!  Not as good as Victorian Leeds at the Thackray Museum, mind, but still pretty damn delightful.  It’s meant to be a recreation of Victorian Wapping, and you can skulk about peering into taverns and sketchy looking purveyors of various animal bits.  My favourite part was right around the back alley where I’m pictured above, as it was clearly where they were pumping in the authentic smells (which were not as fishy as one would expect from a port, more smoky with a hint of poo) so I could really get a good whiff.  Seriously, does anyone know where they order the smells in from?  I presume it’s some kind of special vendor for museums, but I wouldn’t mind having a bottle of Victorian Smell #4 to occasionally uncork in my living room.  It would certainly make my fireplace feel more authentic (and probably Matthias, my ghost, would enjoy the nostalgia as well).


All the galleries had thus far been quite large, and after the high of Sailortown, I have to admit I was putzing out a little.  Still, “First Port of Empire” had its moments.  I find maritime disasters rather fascinating, so I read every bit of the material on the Princess Alice disaster, but felt free to skim over the parts about shipbuilding and such.  There was certainly plenty more doom and gloom in this gallery as well, from fires to strikes, so there was something for all tastes I guess.  It was just a lot to take in at this point.


More authentic smells. And a bit of squatting, though alas, no wellies. Entschuldigung!

“Warehouse of the World” was more interesting to me, as there were more things to smell (Yes, I allow my nose to dictate many of my interests, but seriously, I have a lot of it, so may as well put it to use!  Can you blame me?) and a wonderful Victorian medicine cabinet, along with recreations of a customs hut and a weighing room.  Apparently the dock labourers hated working with sugar, because its grittiness would cut them, so the sugar streets were referred to as “Blood Alley” and the like. (Interesting fact of the day) After this section, I was really getting tired (bearing in mind I’d already been to Greenwich Market and the Fan Museum as well that day), but there was still loads left!

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“Docklands at War” was pretty much what you’d expect; lots of information about the Blitz, complete with replica bomb shelter.  Even though I was giving the briefest of glances to things at this point, I was genuinely surprised to learn that there were several major air strikes a few years after the Blitz.  I don’t know why I didn’t already know this, but it seems like the Blitz is all you ever really hear about.  At the end, there was a series of stained glass type panels that was meant to evoke the feeling of wartime, all in reds and blues, which gave an emotional completion to the gallery.


The final exhibit was on the more recent history of the Docklands, which included the printers’ strikes on Canary Wharf in the ’80s, various periods of economic downturn, some nice portraits of the Beatles, and the development of the DLR.  Again, there were quite a few intriguing displays here, but I just couldn’t give them my full concentration, as dinner consumed my thoughts.


Museum of London Docklands (I want to keep calling it Museum in Docklands) gets 4/5.  I obviously need to come back another time (on a full stomach) so I can peruse the last few galleries at leisure, so I’d suggest that if you live in London, it might be wise to do the same, as it is genuinely a lot to take in on just one visit.  There also appeared to be a section on the ground floor for children called Mudlarks (I assume it’s not historically accurate to the point where they have to pick through actual sewage), as well as a cafe with some tasty looking cakes (though I was hungry enough by the end to eat my shoe).  At any rate, I think Museum of Docklands has more general appeal than the National Maritime Museum, so leave a good few hours for your visit!