I am at one of my favourite places, the Museum of London archive in Hackney, but today is a little different. I have put my volunteer duties to one side for a few hours, there is something special going on at the archive today and I am very lucky to tag along. It is half term holidays and family events aren’t restricted to the main Museum of London site at the London Wall or the Museum of London at Docklands, they also happen in the archaeological archive too.
I guess it can seem an unusual venue, it certainly looks an unlikely spot when you turn up at Eagle Wharf Road, but there is fun and storytelling, singing and music, history and even a bit of archaeology going on inside these walls too. The archive runs a number of different events for families and today I have come to see Mapping London. I am not sure what to expect but when I walk in and see the amazing creation in front of me I am blown away.
Here is a culmination of a week’s worth of work, imagination, endeavour and lots of sticky tape. This map of London that began at the main museum site has travelled to Docklands and has now found its final destination; the largest archaeological archive in the world. Families have been encouraged to realise their own London in paper, card and pen, limited only by their imagination. They have been let loose creating a ‘temporary metropolis’ with towering sky scrapers and teetering tower blocks.
I am immediately lost in these paper streets on a voyage of my own discovery, I see buildings I recognise and architecture that springs purely from the imagination. I see modern London, in not one but two Shards, an African bird is resting on one pinnacle, nature is certainly not absent from this vision of London. The London Eye is also instantly recognisable with happy smiling faces in each pod. I am sure many children have spied London’s streets from its bird’s eye view.
Old London is represented too, how can it not be, when you walk down any street, where old and new buildings abut each other telling the story of London in bricks and mortar. In my paper streets I can worship at St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, I hear the chimes of Big Ben, London’s iconographic buildings are etched on the youngest of minds.
Strangely there are no cars, the odd fire engine but no traffic jams in this little London, perhaps the young minds who created this vision all live in London where public transport is the main route around town. When I look closer I see a bus, the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), trains and tube lines, these are the veins that connect the living breathing city.
The river is a strong unifying theme in many areas, no doubt the Museum of London Docklands working their magic and telling the tale of the Thames that permeates through the centuries. There are river boats and even a few Viking ships, it’s not just the British Museum that is responsible for a Viking invasion!
I am pleased to see not one but three Wembley Stadiums and even a Crystal Palace football ground, London’s Olympic legacy is not lost on these young Londoners, the structures stand clear and strong, encapsulating their love of our national game with a World Cup approaching and I hope something of that Olympic spirit too.
There are a number of elements that surprise me, culture is not absent from our disposable domain, a fantastic rendering of Shakespeare’s Globe is simply wonderful, I peer inside hoping to catch a glimpse of a ‘Twelfth Night” or “Much ado”. I am also pleased to see green spaces, a city living but also breathing, there is even a farm with pigs and cows. In what we consider to be this concrete heart I am relieved to see these children know the green, growing pockets of life hidden in the spider web streets.
There is a lot of humour here too, a sense of fun and joy, I spy a cemetery, Elvis may have left the building but he didn’t get much further. The search and conspiracy theories can be put to bed, it seems he is buried in the London of our imagination. I smile and laugh at the little touches, a small face hidden at a window, the glut of spectators at a football match.
There are notable absences from this London city scape, no Houses of Parliament, perhaps a telling indicator of how little children understand or engage with politicians, to them a Queen rules these streets. I love the beautifully drawn state coach that gallops past the winding river complete with corgi and regal strutting horse. A child pipes up “But there is no school, we must add a school.” His brother immediately retorts “And a prison…” I smile at the connections they make.
There are three buildings that stand out for me, they are powerful little insights into young impressionable minds. The first is a touchingly detailed version of the Barbican, flats towering high, this city is a home not just a place of work and commerce. The second I was slightly surprised at, one of the sky scrapers from Canary Wharf, clearly emblazoned with HSBC. I felt it was unusual that the advertising would stick so clearly in a child’s mind, until I learn that the child’s father works there, all 45 floors faithfully replicated. It is these things that stick in the memory, a parental work place, the connections and facts that link memories, location and love that last a lifetime.
Finally I am drawn to a plain simple house on the outskirts of this replica London, next to it a small sold sign. I am told a little girl took time and patience to add this very personal structure, her own house in the process of being sold, they were moving out of London. This map, her way of leaving a message to a city she knows and loves and has to say goodbye to. I find it touching how children are more affected than we realise by the decisions we make as adults and the choices we take. How a creative outlet can allow an expression of these thoughts that are often not capable of being verbalised.
I am more moved than I ever thought I could be by some scraps of paper and simple drawn lines. Here is London, not exactly a London for children but a London imagined by children, it is a London of the past, present and future and it is a London I know and love. There is even a flying Central Line tube train that soars across the paper peaks, a heart-shaped building, that would actually not look out-of-place alongside a Gherkin, a Shard and a Cheese Grater. I take a step back and notice the bay we are in, the historical archaeological remnants of London’s past are stacked on every shelf. What a fitting and magical place for children to sit and explore their city. The city’s history is preserved and waiting for them, some of it you can walk past every day as bold as brass on every street, a section of Roman wall, a medieval gateway. Some parts are harder to trace and find but the archive is the hub that tries to keep the threads alive, so when these children grow and keep learning they can seek out the London they know and discover the London they have only every imagined.
Half term is a time of freedom for children, it can be a time of constraint for parents finding the hours, money and ways to entertain enquiring minds. I can only hope you will bring your children to the Largest Archaeological Archive in the World, the LAARC, the Museum of London’s heart. There is real magic at work here, not just well planned events and exciting programmes but the simple opportunity at no cost to let your child’s imagination soar, to let them make their own connections, discoveries and adventures. They already love London, today I could see that for myself in every detailed building and expertly rendered illustration but what the Museum of London does is provide an outlet for that love and fascination. I can’t believe it has taken me this long to see what was going on whilst I busied myself with repacking and cleaning, I can only hope you don’t take as long as I have to discover for yourself how an archaeological archive can still be a living breathing magical place.
You can find out more about the family events at the Museum of London Archive here – Family Events
With thanks to Niamh Keating, Alex Hirtzel and the volunteer families team for sharing all the lovely stories with me.