Exhibition at the Museum of London 23 July 2016 – 17 Apr 2017.
It’s known of course as the Great Fire of London. So great in fact that more generally it is simply called the Great Fire. It raged for four days from 2 to 5 September 1666, destroying most of the Square Mile and a substantial area immediately west of the city wall. This being the disaster’s 350th anniversary, it is being commemorated with sundry events in many ways and places. Nobody is better equipped to deal with this than Museum of London with its vast collection of contemporary objects.
The overall design of the show is immersive and atmospheric, that is to say dark and quite noisy, but not intrusively so. This makes complete sense. The fire started at night and virtually all known paintings of it are nightscapes (at least three of which are on display). The first section is narrow and claustrophobic to give you the feel of the medieval London streedscape: it works.
Thereafter the the spaces open out to accommodate more object displays which take us chronologically through the before, during and after phases of the Fire.
The technical stuff shows us just how pathetic was 17C fire-fighting equipment. Most risible of all were the squirts, a couple of which are on display. A beautifully-restored fire engine – also hopelessly inefficient – is one of the centrepieces of the exhibition.
A very large proportion of the objects feature the everyday – tiles, bricks, household objects. These quite obviously resonate the most and where the museum has a huge supply, not least via years of archaeology through MOLA and its predecessors.
There’s lots of interactivity that will prove popular with children (of all ages!). Microscopes to view in detail carbonised articles; pushbutton x-ray reveals of encrusted household objects such as locks, keys, knives; interactive computer game of saving buildings with a choice of methods – firehooks, gunpowder etc.In addition, of course, there is no shortage of the paperwork: documents, diagrams, plans, panoramas, books. These could be an exhibition in their own right. And almost especially for me: old pub signs! Five of them!
The final phase of the exhibition shines a light on the aftermath and ramifications of the tragedy. For me and for many historians I suspect, this is the most absorbing part of the show because it reveals a clear break from many things medieval. It tells us of how Robert Hooke and his team along with voluntary Fire Judges decided who owned what; how the leading thinkers of the day – Wren, Evelyn and others – came up with new plans for London (none was implemented: London had to get back into business asap); the birth of insurance; modern building regulations.
Given the subject matter and the inventory at the museum’s disposal for a show such as this, the task would seem an embarrassment of riches for any curator. But in a way, this actually makes the task more challenging. Meriel Jeater and her team have surpassed that challenge to plan, design, assemble and deliver a wonderfully balanced and evocative exhibition of one of London’s greatest calamities. Do go.
Fire! Fire! runs at the Museum of London from tomorrow until 17 April 2017.
Tickets from £8 adults (when booked online).
More information and booking.