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The Museum of London Docklands: Now Free!

Published 20 July 2010

Like many Londonphiles, I revel in finding new places that are a touch off the beaten track. The Museum of London Dockland may not be a state secret, but it feels as though the culture-guzzling British public haven’t quite made their mark on this one. However, since it became free in March 2010, it’s unlikely to stay this way for long.

Straddling the wealth of Canary Wharf on one side and the East End on the other, the location perfectly connects the polarised worlds which are at the heart of the Docklands’ history. The building is even an artefact in itself: a 200 year old warehouse which once stored the exotic cargo that had been shipped over from the West Indies and beyond.

Inside, the museum gives a chronological history of the London’s relationship with the Thames, which is just as coloured by the people whose lives were enmeshed in its story as it is by the objects it exhibits. Starting with the Roman settlement and surging all the way to its regeneration as a financial district, the Museum of London Docklands brings to life the powerful forces of trade, immigration and commerce that moulded so much of London and the East End, confronting both the glory and the suffering that lies within these themes.

Although there are artefacts a-plenty, don’t expect rows and rows of old coins dulled behind glass. Instead, the museum makes a tremendous effort to use the space in imaginative and innovative ways, from using cinema, audio and interactive screens to building life-sized replicas of places as they once were. Smells even supplement the sights and sounds, giving you a truly sensory experience of the history of the life that grew up in the Docklands area around the river Thames.

My favourite part was Sailortown, a reconstruction of Wapping’s underbelly in the mid 19th century, featuring narrow alleys on dimly-lit cobbles where you can peer into the kinds of alehouses and abodes that once would have been crowded with sailors. This brilliant re-imagination appeals to the child within and serves as a potent reminder of how far museums have come since the ‘museum-legs’ days when they were seen as a chore.

This museum doesn’t shy away from the murkier sides of London’s past, dedicating much of its space to documenting invaders, pirates (including a real example of a gibbet cage which their dead bodies would hang in over the river as a warning!), slums, sewage and disease. The transatlantic slave trade is now, quite rightly, honoured with a new permanent gallery called London, Sugar & Slavery which captures the twisted ideology and the tragedy of the triangular trade through objects, visuals and music.

The Blitz, which did much to demolish the area whilst Britain’s empire was likewise being eroded forever, is brought to life through air raid shelters, photographs, film and oral histories. As we know, the area was never to be the same again as it ceased to become London’s port and the livelihoods of the East End ‘dockers’ diminished with it.

The Museums of London Docklands is a buried treasure waiting to surface; a riveting way of learning about the area which truly pushes the boat out in curation and imagination. As you look out onto Canary Wharf, where unfathomable amounts of money are exchanged every second, it’s a comfort to think that places like this can be free.

Address: Museum of London Docklands, West India Quay, Canary Wharf, London E14 4AL (Google Map)
Tickets/Entry: Free for all
Opening Hours: Mon to Sun: 10am-6pm, Last admission: 5.30pm, Closed: 24-26 December
How to get there: West India Quay DLR station (5 minutes walk), Canary Wharf Tube Station (15 minutes walk)

Official Website: www.museumindocklands.org.uk