Moving History

Historic Clerkenwell is home to the Museum of London, which is marking 40 years of telling the capital’s story – from a mammoth’s jaw to Tom Daley’s swimming trunks. As it unveils designs for a move to Smithfield, director Sharon Ament tells Andre Paine about the ambitious expansion.

The Museum of London is making an entrance. Having unveiled the six striking shortlisted designs for its new location at West Smithfield – due to open in 2021 – it’s clear that no one’s going to struggle to find this museum. For the last 40 years, it has sometimes seemed like a well-kept secret tucked away on a highwalk of the Barbican without a street level entrance.

“Being above the ground behind a roundabout has its problems,” admits Sharon Ament, Museum of London director since 2012. “Despite being difficult to find we have doubled our visitor numbers over the past few years.”

Ament credits the rising attendance (873,000 in 2015) to bold programming and strong exhibitions. Now the numbers are set to double and it will also be able to display many more exhibits. At the end of June, the museum director was on hand for a breakfast launch – held at the suitably stylish Ask For Janice in EC1 – to discuss the plans and the designs that emerged from the architectural competition. Ament says the brief is for “astounding, evocative, surprising and human-scale spaces”; a jury will make the final decision. “The new museum in West Smithfield will be exciting, engaging and iconic,” she adds. “At the same time it will be sympathetic to the existing architecture and the surrounding area, one steeped in history.”

Despite the difficulties of its current location, the surrounding history is tangible, including a surviving part of the Roman London Wall. Smithfield has another story: a market site for more than 1,000 years, Victorian architecture and the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.

“The stories we tell will connect deeply to the place that we inhabit, just as now; but we’ll be able to emphasise different things and importantly tell the story of feeding a city,” Ament says of the historic market site.

“Over the last 40 years we have reached capacity and we need more space to meet the interest of London, from residents and visitors alike and expand our learning offer too.” Then there’s the “game-changer” of Crossrail nearby at Farringdon. “We will be next to one of the busiest stations in the UK, that’s a real opportunity to connect with a bigger audience,” she adds.

The museum director is confident of a “smooth transition”, in contrast to the development of the institution in the 1960s. It came about through a merger of the Guildhall Museum (which opened in 1826) and the old London Museum, a pushy rival set up in 1911 at Kensington Palace with royal patronage. When the Queen officially opened the Museum of London in December 1976, she referred to her “considerable proprietary interest”: her grandmother, Queen Mary, had supported the old museum.

While the two institutions were uneasy rivals in the first half of the 20th Century, a merger became more likely after they both became homeless as a result of the Second World War. But the original plans were curtailed by the building of a large roundabout and the rejection of a compulsory purchase order for the Ironmongers’ Hall (the museum had to be wrapped around the livery company venue). The merger required 16 years of complicated negotiations involving the Treasury, City Corporation, trustees of the London Museum and London County Council.

“Old animosities began to fade away, the new building was erected in a mere three years, and in 1976, at long last, London acquired its own museum, worthy of its great past,” wrote Francis Sheppard in the official history.

The museum tells the story going back to 450,000 BC, featuring 22,000 items of clothing and fashion, 2,000 life stories of individual Londoners, 500,000 paintings, prints and photographs and 20,000 excavated skeletons in the rotunda (looked after by the human osteology curators). It also has one of the most respected archaeological conservation teams in the UK. The Museum of London Docklands, which opened in 2003, focuses on the history of the Thames and holds the Sainsbury Archive. One of the iconic attractions is the Lord Mayor of London’s State Coach, which is still used at the Lord Mayor’s Show. Then there are the hugely successful temporary exhibitions, from Sherlock Holmes and the Crime Museum Uncovered to this summer’s Great Fire exhibition, which will enable visitors to walk down a recreated Pudding Lane.

“From conservation and curatorial to programming, learning, development, communications, technicians, visitor services and retail, a lot of work goes into making them so special,” says Ament.

Crucially for the thriving capital it represents, the Museum of London is soon going to be even better placed to keep us in touch with the past.

“We connect people to this great global city, showing how the past informs the present and shapes the future,” says Ament. Clerkenwell is going to be at the heart of that incredible story for another 40 years.

The Museum of London permanent exhibitions are free. The Smithfield designs are on display until 11 September and online.