London Museum Challenge #6-#7: The Museum of London and Dr Johnson’s House

March 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dr Johnson’s House

Dr Johnson’s House

For someone who’s lived in London as long as I have, admitting never having visited the Museum of London is on a par with having had a crush on Val Kilmer when I was fifteen – mortifying. (Although I think anyone who knows me will agree that my taste has improved dramatically since then.) In my defence, it isn’t strictly true that I’ve never visited the museum. I did visit once, eleven years ago, when I was doing my MA. I explored the Roman London section, felt overwhelmed by the size of the place and the number of objects, and promised myself that I would go back another time to see the rest of the museum… and for some reason, never did.

It wasn’t that I’d disliked the museum, though. Far from it. I may have found the size and complexity of the place intimidating, but I also found the atmosphere, at least in the Roman galleries, mysterious and haunting. Two resonant, enigmatic objects have stuck in my memory ever since. One was the arm and hand of a statue, probably of a god or emperor (not that the dividing line was always clear for the Romans) stretched out in an oratorical gesture that must have looked grand and important when attached to its body, but which, severed and displayed alone in a vitrine, seemed pleading, helpless. The other was the hood and jesses of a falcon that seemed to contain a strange and terrible power, like the helmet of a tiny, enchanted suit of armour.

So when I arrived at the museum four weeks ago with N, who had last been on a school trip and had similar memories of a strange and mysterious place, we both found ourselves in for a terrible disappointment. Something awful had happened to the Roman section. In a totally misguided attempt to make it ‘accessible’ for younger audiences, the curators had inserted all manner of anachronisms to try and draw parallels between contemporary and Roman London… so there were Ikea catalogues scattered around in a (very cheap-looking) installation of a Roman home, a sack of De Cecco pasta plunked in the middle of a section on the market, and references to ‘buying British’ (not a concept that Roman Britons were familiar with, I’m pretty sure) in a display on trade. It all looked cheap and horrible and, I would imagine, actually works against itself – it probably confuses children more than it enlightens.

Unfortunately, we were both so annoyed at this mess that it rather cast a pall over the rest of the visit, although thankfully the same approach wasn’t applied to any of the other galleries. They were a mixed bag – the 17th-century gallery was dull and, I thought, could have learned a few lessons from the excellent Shakespeare exhibition at the British Museum last summer, which brilliantly and persuasively brought London in that period to life, and the Museum was weirdly coy in its treatment of the Empire, but things improved in the 19th and 20th century sections. One of the highlights was a beautifully rendered and immaculately detailed Victorian shopping street (which, I was happy to see, included a printmaker’s workshop) but, enchanting as it was, nothing was labelled, so we had no sense of whether it was a recreation of a single street or a composite… or indeed anything else.

There were some wonderful things in the 20th century section as well (pieces of Art Deco metalwork from the Savoy, flapper dresses, ration books from the Second World War) but my overall impression, sad to say, was that London – hectic, dirty, confusing, maddening, mysterious, wonderful London – deserves a better showcase for its history than the museum’s current incarnation.

***

After my disappointing visit to the Museum of London, I decided to give myself a weekend off – if for no other reason than that the above sounds a bit Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells – and chose for my next visit a place that was the polar opposite in scale and focus: Dr Johnson’s House. (Although, of course, Dr Johnson is famous for having said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life…)

I feel a bit ambivalent about writers’ houses. I’ve loved both of Keats’s houses (the one in Hampstead where he lived, and the one in Rome where he died) but also found Dickens’s house a terrible disappointment, an empty shell that gave scarcely any sense of the man himself. But then, Keats is one of my favourite poets and Dickens I find very hard to love. I haven’t actually read any of Johnson’s work (or Boswell’s Life), though, which allowed me to go in with a more open mind.

Dr Johnson lived in a tall, narrow house on Gough Square, tucked away from Fleet Street down a short warren of passages and pedestrianised streets. Barely ten yards away from Fleet Street, the noise of cars and roadworks faded almost to nothing and, cliché as it is, I felt as if I’d stepped back in time, or into another, quieter London.

Dr Johnson's House: Library

The house retains its original interior structure – all pure, simple Georgian panelling painted in muted colours, gently creaking floorboards, sparse furniture (only a few pieces were actually owned by Johnson). To evoke the lively social life of Johnson’s day, the walls of each room are hung with portraits (mainly prints) of his bewilderingly numerous friends, lodgers and colleagues: writers, entrepreneurs, artists, lawyers, bluestockings, politicians, and the odd criminal. Even in the midst this printed crowd, the atmosphere is quiet and slightly forlorn. There are only a handful of other visitors, a young couple and two middle-aged women. None of them look like tourists: I guess that like me, they’re Londoners, either by birth or by choice.

Dr Johnson's House: Garret

Perhaps inevitably, my favourite rooms are where Johnson did his work: the library and the garret, where the Dictionary was written. The garret is a long, narrow, light-filled room. It’s hard to imagine the buzz of activity when it packed with scribes standing at desks and scribbling furiously; the end result, at least, is there for perusal, several facsimile editions laid on a table at one end of the room. One doesn’t normally think of dictionaries as having an authorial voice, but even a brief reading gives a good taste of Johnson’s wit. His definition of ‘patron’: ‘One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.’ And ‘oats’: ‘A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.’ (I take it he doesn’t have many fans in Scotland.) Oh, and if you’re under the impression that he infamously missed out ‘sausage’, I’m sorry to disappoint you: that’s an urban legend.

By the time I made my way back down to the entrance, I felt as if I’d gotten to know Dr Johnson a little bit better and certainly inspired to read more of him (and about him).  I gently closed the door behind me and waded back into the present, content in the knowledge that a small corner of the 18th century is alive and well in the heart of London.

Tally: 7 down, 16 to go

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