MUSEUMS / Back on track: The London Transport Museum has changed. Out go the trainspotters. In come the feminists. Christian Wolmar reports
Saturday 18 December 1993
The museum, which reopened on Wednesday after a complete revamp that necessitated nine months of closure, has the challenge of serving that specialist audience, who comprise 15 per cent of visitors, while making its displays attractive to the wider general audience. The pounds 4m redevelopment has, indeed, created a more coherent museum. Where before there was a jumble of forms of transport, to a large extent trams, buses and trains have now been grouped together. There is a new map room, one of the best of the exhibits, which includes the original sketch for the first schematised tube map. Grafted onto the structure of the building, which used to be Covent Garden's flower market, a new mezzanine floor has been created on which part of a tube train has been placed. There is now something of a chronological 'path' through the museum, with the first exhibits being horse-drawn trams, complete with plastic horses and continuing with trams and then buses.
But the biggest change is one of attitude. There are a limited number of people interested in gadgets and widgets. Partly because of its overemphasis on technology, the museum had been in decline prior to its closure. In the early 1980s, it was attracting 350,000 visitors per year but this had fallen to under half that by last year. The management realised that to make itself more accessible to a wider audience required putting transport in its social context.
One of the new ways to attract more people and to entertain those who do come is through the provision of a guides service to enliven the exhibits. A team of 30 volunteer guides has been created, working at weekends and school holidays, who provide half-hour free tours. They are a heterogeneous bunch whose talks reflect their particular interest ranging from 'old codger', who tells tales about taking trams to school, to feminist, giving a woman's view of the history of transport in London. Their brief is to avoid concentrating on the objects and to stress the effect of London's transport system on people. Typically, they work three or four days per month for nothing but love.
One of the most experienced guides, David Ruddom, is unusual in that he was former chief librarian in Barnet rather than a London Transport employee. His tour is full of the little details that, quite frankly, make half an hour's tour seem totally insufficient. He tells how the first horse-drawn Omnibus ('for all' in Latin for non-classicists) service was provided by George Shillibeer in 1829 and had to go round the City from Paddington to Bank because Hackney carriages had a monopoly in London. He also tells how horse-drawn trams on rails, introduced in the 1860s, allowed cheap travel for the masses for the first time, stimulating the growth of London's suburbs, as did the construction of tube lines to far reaches of the countryside outside London. They also caused a major pollution problem as 1,000 tons of manure were dumped on London's streets every day by 100,000 horses, half of them hauling buses and trams. Mr Ruddom is careful to spare visitors the more exhaustive details: 'People who go on about the technology are called 'hairies'. I do have to stop myself at times.' He illustrates his talk with tales about how London Transport registered the trademarks 'red line', 'blue line' and 'yellow line' when they started Green Line buses to stop rival imitations but nevertheless someone began a 'Cream Line' service.
Transport is a difficult subject to present in an interesting way. Telling people that I am transport correspondent of this newspaper can be a real conversation killer. But the revamped museum shows just how fascinating the history of transport can be even for people who don't know one end of a bus from the other.
London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, London WC2 (071-379 6344), daily 10am-6pm (not 24-26 Dec)
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