The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch, the newest novel in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series, called to mind displays in the Museum of London. I’ve been to this museum so many times, but I was inspired to explore how the Rivers of London series would influence my experience of re-visiting the museum.
The magical version of London captured in the series isn’t far off from the version in the Museum of London, full of magical entities and long memories. The museum uses collages of images, videos, sounds, recreations, replicas, and sometimes even smells to communicate London’s history in a holistic way.
About the series (hopefully without spoilers)
For those who haven’t read the series (or need a refresher), the Rivers of London/Peter Grant books by Ben Aaronovitch follow the adventures of Police Constable Peter Grant as he discovers the magical underbelly of London policing. As a narrator obsessed with architecture, Peter creates a strong sense of geographically organized history since his descriptions of locations and scenes are practically biographies of London.
They are more history lesson than sensory descriptions, telling the reader what happened to give a place its character, like a pondering the impact of the Metropolitan Line on London’s geography and expanding urbanization while riding the tube during rush hour.
The railway hit Harrow on the Hill in 1880 and it’s been downhill ever since, culminating in one of those formless red brick shopping centres which artfully combines a complete lack of aesthetic quality with a total disregard for the utilitarian function for which it was built.
– The Furthest Station
Beyond the history lessons, the magic system (invented by Isaac Newton, apparently) also includes the concept of “vestigia” – that everything holds onto impressions, especially magical impressions, that the sensitively inclined can sense as smells, snatches of sound, images, or strange emotions. Stone especially absorbs these sensations, which means a city like London is absolutely saturated in remnants of its past.
The book also captures the people of London and the cultural diversity that is not always acknowledged enough in pop culture. The magical characters draw from the myths of the different groups that have immigrated to England, not just the “indigenous” fairies. Mama Thames, a Nigerian immigrant, took over London in the 60’s after Father Thames moved up river to the country. It’s brilliant commentary on the changing population of London.
The Museum of London
Basically, reading the Peter Grant series is already a bit like walking through the Museum of London, but for this visit I decided to leisurely look at all the objects and only stopping to read the text that really jumps out to get a sense of the story the whole museum is telling. In this museum’s case, it is the biography of London. Walking through the displays, you really get a sense of the character of the city through the centuries. The museum uses its collections to tell the story of the physical face of the city and its changing cultures – the waves of immigration and socio-cultural influences that defined it at every turn.
The “London before London” gallery focuses on London’s prehistory – from paleolithic animal bones and early tools to the civilization that lived along the banks of the river just before the Roman invasion. Winding along one wall is a soft blue glass case of objects found in the river, arranged chronologically like a river through time. Most were sacrifices – human remains, tools, ornaments, weapons, and other objects – given over to the river to ensure the life of the communities along it. It makes sense, seeing the number and quality of offerings, that the River spirits would be the most powerful ones in Aaronovitch’s book.
One line in the exhibition text in particular resonated with the Peter Grant series: “the land bore witness.” While in the museum, this is a poetic way of summing up archaeological and geological evidence of human actions. This line reminded me of the vestigia.
Leaving the “London before London” gallery, you are immediately confronted with a dramatic mural of the Romans crossing the river Thames. The “Roman London” section really gets into the building of London as a city. Maps show buildings expanding along the Thames, the Walbrook, the Fleet. While standing in an immersive display of a Roman London street, you can see sections of the London wall outside the window. Still scattered throughout the City of London, the wall is layers of history itself – Roman, Medieval, Tudor, Victorian.
The “War, Fire and Plague” gallery was unfortunately incomplete when I visited, as the exhibition about the Great Fire was still going on and its section in the permanent gallery was closed off, but the London Stone is on temporary display here. The stone is supposedly the center of London, and if it ever leaves the city will fall (much like the ravens in the Tower). Like the personifications of London’s rivers, the stone is a genus loci, or spirit of the place. It’s waiting here in the Museum of London for it’s permanent home, and like some sort of digital genus loci, it’s entertaining itself on Twitter. You can talk to it @TheLondonStone and see what it’s been up to (hint, it is very full of itself).
The Great Fire devastated huge portions of the city and led to a massive rebuilding effort. The “Expanding City” rooms cover a time period (post 1666 to 1850) that was marked by rapid change. You get a sense of the speed of history in the layered displays. Odd details jumped out at me as I moved through them leisurely – an 18th century board game, the hollow Georgian costumes, the Newgate Prison cell, rubbish and broken teacups in a perspex case set into the floor below my feet. The Victorian Walk is a delightful warren of Victorian shops and was very reminiscent of the moments in the books when Peter Grant slipped into pockets of the past.
“People’s City” covers the 1860s to 1940, and covers a large number of social movements. Hygiene efforts to clean up London’s water, the Suffragette movement, the rise of automobiles, World War One, and, of course, World War Two. Like the Great Fire, the Blitz changed the face of London. It’s described in a small, dark room with written and recorded accounts from survivors of the Blitz projected across a bombshell suspended in the center of the room.
“World City” is the last gallery in the timeline – 1950’s to today. Post-war London received a boom of immigrants from all over the world that drastically changed the cultural milieu of the city. The display cases in this section revel in that by using clothing and accessories to show not only the changing styles through time, but the increasing diversity of Londoners. There is also a section devoted to the Brixton Riots, and the change in policing practices after that, which is something I’m reminded of implicitly whenever Peter Grant jokes about “modern policing.” When I visited, there was also a “Changing London” art installation – video booths where visitors could record stories about their London.
It’s not surprising that recurring shared themes appear between these books (so very rooted in the city itself) and the Museum of London. The importance of the river appears again and again as I walked through the museum, from Romans to Saxons, all the way to quaint Victorian streets and model underground trains. Two long panoramas showed the changing skyline along the river in post-1666 rebuilding. The Great Stink and cholera epidemic which led Victorian Londoners to rethink the pollution they put in the river was represented by a brilliant digital interactive that looks like a fountain and lets you explore pollutants and germs. A small room was wallpapered with a map of London, letting you see how the boroughs stitch together with the Thames snaking through like the opening credits of East Enders.
London is a palimpsest – a trait the Rivers of London series really captures in the narration and with the magical system. If you want to experience the history of London the way it unspools in the books – geographically, rather than chronologically – I recommend taking their great app Streetmuseum out for a spin. It lets you view old archival photographs of London laid over the street you’re physically standing in to see what it looked like decades earlier.
The museum will be changing house over the next few years to Smithfield Market, so take a chance to experience the story as it’s displayed now at their London Wall location!