Tuesday, 7 March 2017

London Transport Museum

Covent Garden Piazza
London WC2E 7BB                                    
Thursday March 2 2017

What took us so long? Those of you who have been following our blog since the ‘bus days’ may well have wondered why we had not come to worship at the wheels of the London Transport Museum’s buses before now – three years into the Museum Project?  Well we were keen to avoid holidays and half-term of which there are quite a few but it needed the final spur of establishing contact with one of the Museum’s curators to bring us across the threshold of the Museum, as opposed to popping into the very excellent shop and Poster gallery. 

One of the Museum’s curators had discovered our blog and thought it worthy of preservation – though of course it lives on ‘in the ether’. The British Library is now the repository of many blogs and websites, both personal and more general, and ours is to be submitting under the heading of transport. We came to meet the curator concerned and she kindly treated us to coffee and the entrance ticket. The Museum is free for children of whom there were a few school parties, and several overseas visitors.

The London Transport Museum is our ideal fusion of buses (and a few trains) and London all brought together in our current project – that of Museums. The Museum is located on the Covent Garden Piazza and moved into the very beautiful iron work Floral Hall after the main fruit and veg markets moved out to Nine Elms. As a result of its previous incarnation there is a very generous ground floor tall enough to accommodate several double deckers and some gallery space round the edges on the levels above.
You access everything passing the buggy ramp which has a background of very large scale maps of underground systems from round the world. As we know Harry Beck, with his skills honed in electric engineering, and designer of the first diagrammatic as opposed to accurate map of the rail system, has proved the inspiration for map makers everywhere, as this introductory display. 

Our contact had reminded us to be alert to the ‘time-travelling’ lift with its voiceover telling us of the reigns of different monarchs with back ground noises to match so our arrival in 1800 London would not be too shocking. The smells are missing of course ( time for Jo to remind us that horses evacuate their bowels up to 12 times a day) so the London that Dickens would have walked round , taking the occasional coach to get out to Kent or East Anglia, would have been both dirty and smelly   in a quite different way from today’s particle pollution.

We noted Thomas Tilling’s   horse drawn omnibus, and its later tram substitutes, used a route pretty much the same as modern day Numbers 12 and 1. The river was at this point a major transport link and I was pleased to see a map with the dates of the various bridges being built as these helped the capital to cohere. Also key was the alternative method of crossing the Thames namely by tunnel – Brunel’s tunnel which we have already visited was never a commercial success but it was key as an idea to inspire railway pioneers.

The top level takes a leisurely but detailed tour through the growth of London which led to the establishment of a more co-ordinated transport system. By 1901 the population had reached over 4.5 million people and those who weren’t walking were still mainly reliant on horses – bearing in mind the numbers of horses needed for the early public transport think of the support systems of water and fodder that would have been needed. I suppose some stables turned into garages…

The arrow system based on the roundel makes it easy enough to follow the time line through the two upper floor galleries.

 The evolution of the buses and trains was in fact quite separate with different and competing companies setting up and running the various lines following on from the ‘Metropolitan’ front runner of which there is an example on this floor. Stepping into this train reminded us of the compartments from which there was no escape until you reached a station – current walk through design being so much safer. The other Underground model is loosely speaking ‘mid-century’ (20th) and thus what I would have ridden regularly before moving to (then) tube free South East London. The exhibit comes complete with wax models suitably clad in Sixties type flares   but lacks both the slightly musty smell and noise. There was far less standing room of course but actually fewer people standing.   

The interplay between the growth of London, the expansion into the suburbs and the extending lines out of the centre are well covered and for me it has always been something of a chicken and egg situation that continues to this day – see later for the Elizabeth Line and even more distant expansion of the Bakerloo line.   
Once on the lower gallery it was quite exhilarating to look over what the Museum probably considers it star exhibits (the Routemaster buses)  but to our delight are also suspended some destination boards from both the rail/underground and bus systems.  There is a whole section devoted to ‘runner blinds’ – surely one of the main attractions in becoming a bus driver way back when was to have the regular opportunity to wind the destination blind at each end of the trip??

Talking of design at this point we slipped into the current special exhibition which is also spread over two floors. Ever since Frank Pick and his design mantras to give an a corporate identity to the network London Transport /TFL has been a leader in design.   The display includes the rejected designs for  bus stops and stands, the range of ticket machines and the  colourful schemes for the different lines. 
Did you know there were rules for designing the moquet – that is the seat fabric?
·         Four colours with one bright
·         A repeat pattern
·         Different colours for different light levels
·         Durability
·         Fire retardant
·         Colours & patterns suited to the vehicle and its use

Font lovers that we are, we paid homage to the Johnston type face updated in the 1970s to  new Johnston, but still clearly recognisable. 
There will be an even ‘lighter’ version for the Elizabeth Line. This section is again well packed with information and samples but in a rather more restricted space. For children there are ample opportunities to design your own station as well. This is an even taller order and far removed from the abstraction of the alphabet. The key issues to be addressed  are how do you want to move people along swiftly but safely? How do you give each station an identity but also know its allegiance to a line?

Finishing the design exhibition was the chance to see the computer generated images of several of the new stations along the Elizabeth Line due to open in 2018.  To date Crossrail (as it had been known hitherto) has rather lived up to its name as the different earthworks along its route have thrown local traffic into cross-making traffic snarl ups. It will open piecemeal from this year, but not completely from Reading across to Abbey Wood or Shenfield until December 2019. The computer generated escalator simulations are rather akin to riding a roller coaster so not recommended for the faint hearted or weak stomached. The stations do look wonderful though and more inspired by the Jubilee rather than nondescript Victoria lines ones.

There is plenty here  to keep children , even those not particularly drawn to buses or trains,  busy.
Sometimes the special exhibitions feature particular artists whose work has been commissioned. There is something like 100 years of wonderful poster art and when only a few are on display make sure you do not miss visiting the upper floor poster shop where you can browse the range and re-visit old favourites. A particular thanks again to the museum and its staff  for a morning that passed happily.

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