As a volunteer at the Museum of London it is a real treat and fantastic opportunity to have a tour of West Smithfield, the site for the new Museum of London. As Kate Sumnall, curator, led us round neglected spaces she gave us a wonderful insight into the history of the building. There has been lots of talk about the new Museum of London but this is the first time it feels real to me, standing in the physical spaces trying to imagine a new future for the caretakers of London’s history.
As we begin our tour in the General Market, Sumnall tells us the space is comparable to the British Museum’s Great Court, but there are only certain areas we can visit as the site has been derelict for many years. The markets were designed by Sir Horace Jones who also designed Tower Bridge. The stunning iron work underneath the dirt and grime is just waiting to be rediscovered and brought back to life. Sumnall tells us of the wrought iron Phoenix Columns, cutting edge technology in their time. Their unique construction and strength allowed Jones to create the height and feeling of openness that the Museum of London is so excited to exploit. Some of the columns even reach from the basement up to the roof, a feat of Victorian engineering that is still impressive even to this day.
We stand under the dome in the centre of the market, there is a grandness and light that is really up-lifting. That a building like this was a humble market makes me think of all those workers who trod the rabbit warren of paths and offices underneath, those workers who may have spent their whole careers, their whole lives in this space. You feel the responsibility there is to this building to continue the story, not wipe the slate clean and start again.
We visit the basement spaces under the market, they are huge and labyrinthine. Currently used by the Corporation of London as a salt store for gritting the roads, the space is also shared with Crossrail as they work on the new Farringdon station due to open in December 2018. As we talk a rumble grows louder and louder and a train trundles past one of the arches; How will the Museum incorporate this unique feature into their plans?
We finally visit more basements spaces, completely different in character. There is a long corridor with huge rooms either side, large blue doors remain that would slide shut to keep the meat cold. This is the remnants of the meat cold storage units, they were rebuilt in the 1950s after a terrible fire in 1958.
I am overwhelmed by the challenge of uniting and transforming such beautiful but ultimately awkward spaces. So why move? If the task is so big and daunting why do it? The museum will gain more space, the proposed site is one third bigger than the current Museum of London. The museum gains more space, room to display even more of their stunning collections. I am a regular in the archive, the stores and backroom spaces, the museum holds such amazing collections, having a chance to share collections, bring out stories and connect with new audiences is why everyone works at the Museum of London.
But primarily it has to be access, the current Museum of London site is behind a roundabout, tucked up high, only accessible via stairs, lifts and escalators. Here is a building whose primary aim was to be accessible, accessible for traders, vehicles and customers, there are multiple access points for free flow of visitors that may be the hall mark of museums of the future.
Whilst with the General Market you can grasp this feeling of openness, how do you then marry that with two basements spaces that have such different locations and character? How do visitors navigate these spaces? These are the exciting challenges to come. You can certainly look to the new Sackler Courtyard entrance at the V&A and how the new Tate Switch House (and underground Tanks) fits with the rest of their spaces as food for thought.
When I finish the tour, what I really come away with is a sense of the history of the Smithfield site. Sir Horace Jones, as ground breaking architect of a market at the heart of trade and commerce in the City. The story of workers, tradesmen and consumers. In the basement there are train tracks and tunnels, here the site connects you to the history of transport in London and how it is has shaped our City in the past and is still shaping it today as Crossrail stamps an imprint across London.
There is the story of war and how a V2 rocket fell in the corner by Charterhouse street and Farringdon Road, it punctured through to the basement killing 110 people in the process. That is a story of struggle, resilience, loss and remembrance. There is the terrible fire in the basement of the Poultry Market that burned for 3 days and lost the lives of two firefighters who bravely entered the smoke filled storage spaces with inadequate breathing apparatus and no maps. Their loss directly led to changes in how the London Fire Brigade work today. It is a story of sacrifice and the realities of living in a compact urban environment that are echoed by Grenfell Tower where lessons must be learnt.
I would have never have heard of these stories if I had not stood in these remarkable spaces. One thing I am certain of is that a new Museum of London must never forget those stories that run through the very fabric of the spaces.
After my tour I was very grateful to Laura Wilkinson, Programme Director for the new museum who was happy to chat over a coffee. Only 3 and half months into her role I wonder what brought her to the Museum of London after 9 years at the Imperial War Museum. Whilst I feel daunted by the thought of all the work involved, it is exactly that challenge that has enticed her, the opportunity to help shape a new museum that rarely comes along.
We talk of the new architects, Stanton Williams, who have paired up with Asif Khan. They were announced in July 2016 as winners of an open competition to come up with innovative ways to open up the spaces at Smithfield to a new generation. She tells me they are still very much in the throes of a fluid creative process, taking on board ideas from all corners before they can be gradually shaped into reality. For her at the moment it is very much thinking about what a museum is and should be, a once in a life time chance to shape the future.
They are also working with Ralph Appelbaum, museum and exhibition designers, on an interpretation masterplan thinking about the stories the Museum of London wants to tell and with London’s rich history, I don’t envy the task.
I am excited for the future, but having visited two new museums recently at the National Army Museum and the Design Museum I am not sure the collections have taken centre stage. They are impressive spaces but how do they reflect the primary role of a museum? Preserving, researching and sharing collections.
Having spoken to museum staff over the last few years perhaps the biggest challenge of all is what happens after you open? How do you build in the flexibility of spaces to reflect new acquisitions, new displays and space to showcase new research and new ways to understand the past.
A new museum can never be static, perhaps the biggest challenge for the Museum of London is not the new spaces and what collections to showcase but how do they attract diverse audiences and diverse staff?
The Museum of London has to be a mirror to the City it represents, yes there is history and tradition, but it is also ever changing, striving for innovation, pulling in people from all over the world. Their influence is everywhere you look, it is in the fabric of the City.
Today for the first time I stood in what will be the new Museum of London. It will be my privilege as a volunteer to play a small part of that new museum. Today, I felt the echoes of the past and I had glimpses of the future and I am in awe of the challenge. 2022 seems a long time away but believe me there will be plenty to keep everyone busy!
For more on the new Museum of London – https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/transforming-smithfield-market
For more on the Smithfield Fire – http://www.london-fire.gov.uk/news/LatestNewsReleases_lfb150-tragic-smithfield-fire-leads-to-operational-changes.asp#.WhaR97SFjeQ