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Two stops from Paris

Ahead of its move to West Smithfield, Sharon Ament, director of the London Museum, speaks to EC1 Echo about the exciting plans

By Oliver Bennett

A photograph of Sharon Ament
Sharon Ament. Photo: Penny Dampier

The Museum of London has just closed its doors in its old site in London Wall after 45 years, pending its move to West Smithfield where it re-opens in 2026. But far from being nostalgic, director Sharon Ament is delighted to leave it behind. 

“It was a terrible building,” says Ament, “compromised internally, hard to find, stuck off a walker-unfriendly roundabout. Basically, we suffered from being impenetrable. But look at it here,” she adds, gesturing at the many passers-by around the West Smithfield site, currently shrouded in hoardings and scaffold, but hinting at a splendid future. “Nobody ever fell into the Museum of London at the old site. They will here.” 

So in two and a half years’ time, or as Ament puts it with nerve-racking accuracy “in 900 days”, the London Museum will open. The name has been chosen to be more definitive – “like the British Museum,” says Ament – and it’ll have a whole new look. In the meantime there’s much to do and the changeover will be anything but a holiday. “It already enables us to really concentrate on the Museum of London Docklands Museum, which is great,” says Ament. “But there’s another big change. It’s not about moving a museum; more about creating an absolutely new kind of museum. How we bring our collections alive digitally is a part of that plan. “Imagine that you come to the museum and a brick that was in the Fire of London talks to you. The new museum will make sure the objects are more accessible, and in an intuitive and exciting way.” 

Museums have learned a lot since the Covid era when people couldn’t visit in person. “Before then, we imagined that people would want to stand in front of objects, rather than, look at information on a website,” says Ament. “But nobody behaved like that. So now we want the objects to speak.” In doing this Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality will play their part, but Ament says there’ll be no “tricksy stuff that adds nothing. My questions are always: what does it add? How does it help understanding? Does it help an object or story come to life? If it does, we’ll consider it but it must be really focused.” 

There are several other current initiatives for the Museum, including a large addition to its digital Oral History Collection, set to launch in 2024, and to include 5,000 newly public oral histories from around London. 

“We’ve already got a really big oral history collection and for us, the direct voice has always been really important,” says Ament. “When you hear people talking about the Blitz the power of somebody talking to you from across the ages is phenomenal. Our oral history has always been about being representative, working with working class communities and individuals whose voices haven’t been heard to give as full a picture of London as possible.” 

Shortly a new report, ‘Inequality, Class and the Pandemic’ is to be published by the Museum, drawing on oral histories of those shuttered times, from carers to supermarket workers, cleaners, bartenders and delivery couriers. “In this programme we’ll collect and record the lives of young people,” says Ament, “It always seems to be adults that appear in oral history.” 

Another way the London Museum will differ from its predecessor is that parts will be open all night. It’s set to include a dedicated 24-hour cafe, the Cocoa Rooms, on the Farringdon Street side. Named after Lockhart’s Cocoa Rooms, a chain of alcohol-free bars founded in 1880 – one was located at West Smithfield – it will be part of the Museum’s porous approach. 

“The area already has a 24-hour feel, with the meat market, Bart’s Hospital and the nightlife,” says Ament. Indeed, the Museum has linked up with nightclub Fabric, which is set to become what is said to be the ‘world’s first’ nightclub-in-residence at a museum. A big event is planned for 2025 to inaugurate this aspect with music, art, food and events, and the sense of a destination will build, adjacent to its Crossrail hub. 

“The location has all the magic ingredients and superb accessibility,” says Ament. “The Museum of London will go from being a hidden place that no one can find to being two stops away from Paris – and the area will be connected in ways that no other cultural districts will. Plus, it’s a really evocative environment.” 

Being a museum of its own city, the London Museum faces few of the difficulties facing other museums, such as the restitution of objects to origin countries and the decolonisation of the collection. But as Ament says, “Museums should be in the centre of public conversation. From my perspective people shouldn’t be afraid of objects expressing parts of our history. Understanding the depth and complexity of history, backed by evidence, is part of our desire to help understanding. We’re constantly understanding more about London, working with historians, sociologists and teams.” And using the resources of Londoners themselves is part of that, for as Ament says, ‘You might be the world’s expert on London’s launderettes, in which case get in touch.” 

There’s another aspect of interest to EC1 Echo readers – how the London Museum will interact with locals. “We set ourselves a target of engaging with 100,000 Londoners so far, when I last looked, we were up to 45,000,” says Ament [details are on the website]. “In terms of our relationship with Clerkenwell, definitely. We’re on an intersection with three boroughs, but I’ve found that people think less of boundaries, more about neighbourhoods. And with a population of 10 million curators in London, we want to be a loved and shared place – in the middle of big ideas and in the middle of London itself.” 

Visit museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london

This article is from the February/March 2023 edition of Ec1 Echo. Click here to download your copy.

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