To be honest I am never in any doubt that the Museum of London will put on a fantastic archaeology-focussed exhibition. I am completely biased of course. When I volunteer at the museum I see the care and expertise that goes into every object. I have stood in the Museum archive in Hackney surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of boxes containing thousands of artefacts and I have seen stories teased out, the essence of London’s past pieced together. From the big stories that impact the whole of London to the little stories; a Roman hair pin, a lost medieval shoe, that make you wonder about one individual who lived so many years ago.
Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail is a gem of a story that the Museum of London is best placed to tell. Crossrail will become the Elizabeth Line when it opens from 2018 and it is an engineering project on an epic scale. Crossing London from east to west on a route that encompasses 118km, construction led to 42km of new tunnels under London’s busy streets.
Old London is all around if you take the time to look but scratch beneath the surface, look under those London streets and there are hundreds of hidden stories waiting to be told. Cossrail has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to examine a slice of London’s history.
‘Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail’ is on at the Museum of London at their Docklands site. Fantastic design and great use of space has seen a fairly small exhibition area transformed with 500 objects. That seems like quite a lot but somehow those 500 objects have to tell a story that covers 8,000 years of history.The exhibition takes us on that journey from East to West London, long before we will be able to travel on any shiny new trains. Instead we can time travel stopping off on various points across London as the history of our ancestors is revealed. There are mesolithic flints in North Woolwich, mammoth bones and amber estimated to be 55 million years old at Canary Wharf.
In Stepney Green a 15th century Manor House has offered up a Tudor bowling ball to remind us of a leisurely pastime for the wealthy. Apparently King Henry VIII loved bowls but banned poor people from playing it. Good to see bowling is still popular with the ‘poor people’.
Liverpool Street and Moorgate takes us to Roman London where we can marvel at spectacular hipposandals which are temporary iron horse shoes. I just love these, they are like modern art sculptures to me, some bent and twisted, utilitarian but beautiful. They are a practical accent on Roman life in London that brings the Roman period alive.
Of course history is the story of the dead and Tunnel is no exception to this rule. Skeletons and burials are a feature – from 2nd century Walbrook skulls to the 18th century ‘Bedlam’ burial ground of Bethlem Hospital. Much has been written already of the first ever identification of plague DNA from 16-17th century Britain. There is a digitally produced archaeological plan of the burials of New Churchyard, Liverpool Street. It really helps indicate the scale of plague deaths that I find quite mesmerising.
The modern DNA work on identifying the Yersinia pestis plague pathogen is impacting on modern international studies of plague, allowing the dead to live again by proving useful in the 21st century. I wonder at who these Londoners were, now displayed in glass cases and laid out for our scrutiny.
As we travel further into London, the industrial business heart of the city brings us nearer to the world we know and understand with the remains of the Crosse and Blackwell pickle manufacturing premises. A mind blowing 13,000 vessels were found discarded in a brick cistern when the factory based between Soho Square and Charing Cross road was rebuilt in 1877.
Finally, as the Crossrail Project travels out west towards Heathrow and Reading it is quite apt to focus on structures associated with the early expansion of the railways. Evidence of workshops, turntables and a 200m long engine shed tells the story of the Great Western Railways and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. West Bourne Park and Old Oak Common remind us of the history of transport and travel in london and bring us back to the never ending quest for cheaper, quicker and (less crowded) travel in London.
There are many wonderful stories that get a chance to shine through the object selection and interpretation that the Museum of London has presented. In particular I love the large chain that may have been used to secure ships or help slow them down during launch. Such an innocuous item, found north of Victoria Dock near Canning Town. A vast shaft was built at the Limmo Peninsula for giant tunnelling machinery to be lowered into. The removal of hundreds of tonnes of soil allowed archaeologists to study the Thames Iron Works and gain a greater understanding of the 19th century shipbuilding industry, including the slipways for launching ships.
I have worked on a volunteer project to digitise foreshore finds; padlocks, chains and wood working tools and I love the chain on display, it reminds me of all those less dynamic objects in the archives that don’t often get a chance to tell a fascinating story. The chain also exemplifies how the museum tells stories by pairing the chain with very early documentary footage of London and the river Thames showing the launch of the HMS Albion at the Thames Iron Works in 1898.
One of the worst peace time tragedies on the Thames, 38 people lost their lives when crowds of up to 30,000 turned out to the launch of the Albion. Some of those crowds were drowned when the backwash from the ship destroyed a temporary slipway bridge they were packed on to. A simple chain telling the story of ordinary Londoners with a tragedy we can all connect with is one of the most powerful parts of the exhibition.
All I have talked about is archaeology, but Tunnel is much more than ‘stuff dug out of the ground’. Tunnel also wants to tell the story of the Crossrail Project. From the 8 tunnel boring machines all named after women to the close relationship between the building contractors and the archaeologists.
There is a great deal to learn about the process of archaeology too, working with such huge machines under time pressures it is amazing than any objects survived. Seeing pictures of the teams of archaeologists swarming over sites gives an idea of the huge workload involved.
On the press day we got to see first-hand the scale of the development with a trip down to the Canary Wharf Crossrail platform and tunnel. Fairly near completion it becomes a stretch to imagine those first scrapings back of the earth and the discovery of human remains when you are standing in a huge tunnel.
The conflict of archaeology versus construction really comes to the fore with the display of a skeleton that was found in a grouting shaft. It is a perfect example of the realities of large scale development and archaeology. The skeleton is missing its feet because the bones retrieved were contained within the perimeter of the circular shaft, whilst the feet were not. As fascinating as the archaeology is, it always comes up against the realities of construction and I really like the way the exhibition tries to show that dilemma.
One little niggle I have with the exhibition comes from my love of a museum that has to tell the story of all Londoners. Many buildings were destroyed for Crossrail including the famous London music venue the Astoria. The exhibition does touch on the loss of the Astoria but the text is very neutral, just mentioning the building was destroyed and goes on to explain how scans and photography were used to capture a detail record of the interior and exterior.
I do like the supplementary material that has come from the Museum’s collections, including posters and flyers to celebrate the entertainment legacy of a building going back to 1927 when the Astoria Cinema first attracted the crowds.
There is no mention however of the outcry and controversy in the destruction of the Astoria and the 35,000 people who signed a petition to try and prevent its loss. If this was just an archaeology exhibition I would not mention this. But this exhibition is also about the Crossrail project as an engineering and construction success. Being hand in hand with Crossrail perhaps limits the opportunity to treat this topic as openly as I would want. If you are a museum for all Londoners do you not have to give them all a voice?
There is a lot written about museums recently on their role in society and whether they have a duty to become less neutral.
2017 ICEE Conf: Can museums of all sizes and disciplines act as neutral spaces for mediation between communities and nations in conflict?
— ICEE ICOM (@ICEE_ICOM) February 10, 2017
Wrong question. Museums are NEVER “neutral spaces”. They are run by people, not robots. They ALWAYS contain viewpoints. https://t.co/G3ZuhW3ZaZ
— David Fleming (@DrDavidFleming) February 10, 2017
Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail is an excellent free exhibition but I wonder as a new development, Crossrail 2 threatens the Curzon Cinema in Soho, how the museum will reflect on this period in years to come. Cities always change, nothing stays the same, we can see that from the Roman archaeology of hipposandals and the tudor bowling balls. But what we don’t often know is how people felt about those changes.
The Museum of London has a duty to capture the present, those who stood against the closure of the Astoria just as much as the construction workers who built Crossrail and the archaeologists who gave us this wonderful exhibition.
Any inaccuracies are purely my own. I also volunteer at the Museum of London.
Tunnel: the Archaeology of Crossrail is a FREE exhibition on at the Museum of London, Docklands. Friday 10 February – Sunday 3 September 2017. For opening times please see the website – https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london-docklands
Further reading –
Early video of the launch of the HMS Albion – BFI. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1VA0PM0Hv8
The Astoria, legendary venue for acts from Kylie to the Killers, falls silent for final time, Guardian, January 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2009/jan/15/astoria-final-gigs
Vault found underneath former London venue Astoria, NME, Jan 2017. http://www.nme.com/news/music/secret-vault-found-underneath-former-london-venue-astoria-1940396
Celebrities join fight to save Soho’s Curzon Cinema from Crossrail 2, Guardian, September 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/22/celebrities-join-fight-to-save-sohos-curzon-cinema-from-crossrail-2-london