London before London. (Frontline).
History is often an impossible journey, a wandering through a puzzle that requires a Rosetta Stone to understand it. There can be no `authorised' version, but many different versions and voices, accents and sounds telling the stories that are reflected in the contemporary world. Museums exist to ignite interest and they should inspire visitors to embark on their own journeys of discovery. Original artefacts are the storytellers and good gallery design and interpretation can play a crucial role in revealing what they have to say.
What better time to arrive at the Museum of London than now, as it opens `London Before London', a new gallery that looks back over nearly half-a-million years of human life in the Thames valley, up to the arrival of the Romans. The Museum's curators and design team have risen to the challenge of bringing this remote period of London's history to life, stretching the imagination and making the unfamiliar accessible.
This is a gallery that confronts our attitudes to prehistory, involving us in the lives, beliefs and achievements of people who are Londoners' geographical ancestors. We are drawn through vast tracts of time and across unknown landscapes into a world very different from our own. We watch as countless generations of hunter-gatherers survive with little change to their lifestyles, until the arrival of `modern' people 40,000 years ago. We begin to see the world through their eyes and are surprised to encounter people similar to ourselves.
They were hunters then, later they became farmers and traders. They exchanged ideas, lived in organised communities, met for religious and social gatherings, acquired status symbols, decorated their possessions and buried their dead with complicated rituals. They were adaptable and were fine craftsmen. We find ourselves coveting that highly polished jadeite axe found in the Thames at Mortlake that reminds us of a work by Barbara Hepworth. Suddenly these people become relevant--and prehistory might be yesterday.
Another achievement of the gallery is that it changes our own `mindscape' of London's geography. Looking through sheets of glass etched with the frosty footprints of humans and wild animals, a sea of blues and greys, we are taken back to a time when vast climatic changes moulded the landscape, pushing the river Thames into its present channel around 450,000 years ago. Successive ice sheets, tundra, woodlands and farmsteads take the place of familiar streets and buildings, and we may find that journeys across the capital will never be the same again. We imagine the animals--perhaps the massive aurochs (wild ox) browsing the sedge grass down by the river, or the lions and hippos that once roamed Trafalgar Square. Archaeological discoveries, like the Iron Age temple at Heathrow, the marks of Bronze Age ploughs in Southwark and a family cremation site in Acton, give familiar place-names a resonance they never held before.
The richest source of all for prehistoric artefacts has been the Thames. The river was central to the lives of all the inhabitants of the valley. As well as providing a constant source of water and food, it was regarded as a sacred place for religious offerings and the last resting place for the dead. The river wall within the new gallery is a powerful carrier of meaning--a spine that leads the imagination to the heart and soul of prehistoric London. Almost 400 objects recovered from the Thames, ranging from human skulls to magnificent Bronze Age weapons, are displayed within it.
Everyday objects, like loom-weights and pottery, cooking implements, pieces of jewellery and ornaments, give vivid insights into the lives of people living in their camps and homesteads. Archaeologists have uncovered some fascinating stories. It is impossible not to wince at the human skull with a carefully-made hole in the side. Dating from 1750 BC, it is the earliest local example of the practice of trepanning, a type of brain surgery used to alleviate the symptoms of bad headaches.
Perhaps even more intriguing is the burial of a woman discovered in Southwark. She had died in her forties and been buried following a mix of cultural customs. Born in the 20s or 30s AD, she would have seen the arrival of the Romans and died a citizen of the Roman empire, within sight of the growing settlement of Londinium. Objects found in her grave included a bronze neck ring, an Italian mirror and a pottery wine flagon from Germany.
Museums must engage their visitors through their eyes and minds but also, most importantly, through their hearts. One of the most unexpected items in the gallery is a poem written by Bernardine Evaristo, during her time as poet-in-residence at the Museum, in which she magically unites the past and the present. Entitled `Routes', it conjures up images of long migrations, prowling animals, mid-winter nights and people huddled round campfires on the banks of the Thames. At the end, she describes herself floating above London's prehistoric landscape as, from Marble Arch, she gazes `longingly on sheets of marigold, meadowsweet, mint'. It is an inspired choice.
Talks, workshops and family events will involve visitors at all levels. A full-scale replica of an Iron Age roundhouse has been built to celebrate the opening of the gallery. It can be seen until October 26th--complete with a resident Iron Age man waiting to welcome twenty-first-century visitors.
History cannot be neatly compartmentalised. It is a vast web with many ragged edges, probably throwing up more questions than it answers. In this sense, a museum like the Museum of London can never be complete--which is one of the things that makes it so dynamic and exciting. It is a constant work in progress. As I take up my post we turn our attention to the opposite end of the historical spectrum--living memory and the creation of new twentieth and twenty-first century galleries. I am looking forward to this very different challenge.
Jack Lohman, Director London before London is open from October 18th. Museum of London: 020 7600 3699.
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|Title Annotation:||Museum of London exhibit|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2002|
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