Today (April 8) in London History – the London Museum

The London Museum first opened its doors on April 8, 1912. Today’s Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


Ah, glad you could make it.

Welcome to London.

Welcome to London Walks.

Welcome to the Today in London History Podcast.

With a bit of Today in London – a London recommendation – thrown in as an appetiser. 

And on this day, that appetiser, that recommendation, can only be one thing: whatever you do don’t leave this town without a visit to the Museum of London. And while you’re at it, pencil in a follow-up visit for when you’re here in, say, 2023. 

Ok, Today in London History.

Why don’t we do the whole song? The verse that everybody knows and the two verses that nobody knows.

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday dear London Museum Happy Birthday to you.

From good friends and true,
From old friends and new,
May good luck go with you,
And happiness too.

How old are you now?
How old are you now?
How old, How old
How old are you now?

So, yes, today’s the birthday of the London Museum.  And in answer to that question, the London Museum is 110 years old.

It pitched up on April 8th, 1912.

And what a birthplace! Kensington Palace.

And where’s the London Museum today? That question is a little bit complicated. The London Museum is no more. But it lives on in its child – the Museum of London.

You see, the London Museum was the mother of the Museum of London.

The father of the Museum of London was quite a bit older. He was born in 1826. His name was the Guildhall Museum. 

Mother and father got together in 1965. An Act of Parliament brought them together.

Basically, they merged. Ok, their collections merged. What came of that copulatory act – that coupling act – was the Museum of London, the largest urban history museum in the world. Its life’s work is the recording and representing and re-presenting the history of the London region from prehistoric times to the present day.

Now today is mum’s birthday – the London Museum’s birthday – so this will mostly be about her. But no harm 

in finding out a little bit about dad, about the Guildhall Museum. As I said, he’s quite a bit older. He pitched up in 1826. He was sired by the Corporation of London. He grew up in Guildhall. (Aside here: this is one of those things guides know but the public doesn’t – and, yes, I grant you, this me, David, maybe being a bit pedantic, but so what – it’s Guildhall, not “the Guildhall”; exact same principle that governs the way we talk about Westminster Abbey. We don’t say “the Westminster Abbey”, we say Westminster Abbey.) So, yes, dad grew up in Guildhall. That’s why he was called the Guildhall Museum (what a minefield idiomatic English is – it’s Guildhall but the Guildhll Museum). His physique included many archaeological discoveries of the previous two centuries from Roman and medieval London, the Hanbury Beaufoy collection of tradesmen’s tokens, and material relating to the city guilds and livery companies.  

Mum – the London Museum – was grander, prettier. She was royal. She was more about high-end social life than practical, hard-nosed, no-nonsense, even grubby commercial and civic life. She arrived, on April 7th, 1912, as a memorial to Edward VII. Her lineaments included various royal collections. Some of her other accoutrements included the John G. Joicey collection of Chelsea and Bow porcelain and decorative arts, Richard Tangye’s English Civil Wars collection, and more than 400 pieces of English glass amassed by Richard Garton.

Put together, you’ve got a biography of London, you’ve got the Museum of London.

But just a bit more about mum. She moved about. Wasn’t at Kensington Palace for very long. As a toddler – she was two years old, it was 1914 – she moved to Lancaster House. She had expensive, impeccable tastes, the London Museum. Let’s tell a London story. Queen Victoria was also born at Kensington Palace. When she became Queen she’s moved to Buckingham Palace. She was great friends with the Duchess of Sutherland. The Duke and Duchess lived at Lancaster House. Lancaster was – and is very grand – in a word, palatial. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert paid a call on the Duke and Duchess at Lancaster House, Her Majesty was, well, impressed – maybe even jealous – of the Sutherlands’ domicile. Rather tartly, Queen Victoria said to the Duchess, “we have come from our cottage to your palace.” Little wonder that Lancaster House is a strong candidate for London Film Set Number One: Churchill at War, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The King’s Speech, Netflix’s The Crown…well, you get the idea. So here’s a hit one for six tip for you – you ever get a chance to get inside Lancaster House, don’t pass it up. Mary got in there a few years ago – and like Queen Victoria, she been inside Buckingham Palace – when her dad got his MBE – and sure enough Lancaster House impressed her more than Buckingham Palace. She was talking about it for weeks afterwards. Anyway, Lancaster House a pretty good place to grow up in. Personal aside here. I love the Museum of London. It’s my favourite London museum. But what I wouldn’t give to be able to time travel back, say, 85 years and visit its mum when she was in Lancaster House.

But then what do you know, come 1946 – the London Museum, now a youngish woman, fast approaching her prime – moves back to Kensington Palace.

Where she stays until 1965 and she and her fella, the Guildhall Museum, get together and the Museum of London is the result.

The Museum of London itself – the wonderful Museum of London – has even better days ahead of it. Its main site at London Wall will close at the end of this year. It will be relocated in the splendid Victorian Smithfield Market structure. It’s the perfect place for the Museum of London. It’s a wonderful building at the heart of a very old vibrant corner of London where past, present and future London commingle in a heady mix. 

And as Museum of London Director Sharon Ament points out, in their present building the Museum is at a remove – it’s not connected to the streets, it’s not connected to people in the way that a modern museum should be.

And to that you can add the monster energy booster rocket that comes with that Smithfield location: Crossrail. Crossrail means the new Museum of London will be just minutes away from East London and minutes away from West London. The Museum of London, in other words, is going to be right in the heart of London – it’ll be at the crossroads of London. It won’t just be connected to the people of London – it’ll be hyper-connected, super-connected, ultra-connected. Of the people, for the people, by the people. Their museum about their city – past, present and future – in the very heart of their city.

I can’t wait.

And on that note, good night from London.

See ya tomorrow.

And look, as long as we’re at it, let’s stay with the newborn-toddler-child-adolescent-adult trope. Let’s pretend we’re the Museum of London – the toddler Museum of London – and ask that question: “Where did I come from?”

Like London, the Museum of London has grown, it’s moved, it’s been on the go. 

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