Museums: Bridging a gap in London's history: Michael Leapman visits the exhibition at Tower Bridge that marks its centenary in 1994

TOWER BRIDGE in London prides itself on being possibly the only bridge in the world to house an exhibition. It is not difficult to work out why.

Bridges, even bridges that play clever tricks, are largely functional. They are of interest chiefly to the kind of enthusiasts who attend steam rallies, besotted by the romance of iron, pistons and coal-fired boilers.

All the same, Tower Bridge is special. As much a symbol of London as Big Ben and red double-decker buses, it has been attracting around half a million visitors a year since it was first opened as a tourist attraction in 1982.

It hopes to lure rather more with its pounds 3.75m refurbishment, involving new hi-tech animated displays which were unveiled last month in time for next year's centenary of its construction. With 2.3 million people a year visiting the Tower of London alongside it, the market is clearly there.

The bridge boasts two main attractions. There are the enormous Victorian engines that were used to lift the two halves of the roadway when it opened for ships: it is now electrically operated but the sleek old machinery is still in place. Then there are the high walkways linking the two towers, offering marvellous views up and down the River Thames.

Until now, these were complemented only by a rather earnest exhibition explaining the history of the bridge construction in diagrams, models and text. This has been replaced by 'The Celebration Story', a lively exhibit using the most modern animation and audio techniques.

Visitors are taken up in a lift and directed to the first gallery, where a talking and moving model of a construction worker begins to explain the history of the bridge, assisted by film clips and holograms.

The human models are animatronics and are very impressive. Their eyes swivel and blink, their fingers tap on the table in front of them and it is easy to mistake them for real people. Several appear throughout the 75-minute tour, either as actual characters involved in the tale, or as figures meant to represent the humble toilers.

There is nothing wrong with how they look: the problems start, however, with what they say. It is always hard for the creators of this kind of display to know just at what level to pitch the script. The trap - and I am afraid Tower Bridge falls headlong into it - is to adopt the folksy and jokey 'believe it or not' tone assumed to grab the attention of both young and old visitors.

An attempt is made to inject drama by playing up the debates about whether another bridge in London was really needed. The problem is that the characters involved - shipowners worried about obstructing access to the Pool of London; engineers submitting rival designs - are not interesting enough to make it work, even when voiced over by Timothy West. There is a great deal of chirpy ho-ho-hoing in broad regional accents, for many of the workers came from Tyneside.

Any trouble overseas visitors may have in deciphering them is alleviated by simultaneous translation equipment. A stoker nods off beside his coals and two men tease each other over which of them should be explaining about the bascules - the counterweights that allow the road sections to pivot upwards. As in bad melodrama, the overacting only serves to underline the thinness of the plot. However amazing an engineering achievement the bridge was a century ago, it is primitive stuff by today's standards.

The addition of an education centre, with 'a resource pack closely linked to the national curriculum', suggests that children are the main target for the exhibition. Certainly they will get the most out of standing in a scaled-down model of a bascule chamber, in apparent danger of being crushed as the bridge swings.

They may also enjoy the climax of the tour, a diorama of the 1894 royal opening, staged in a mock Edwardian theatre complete with an animatronic, moustachioed master of ceremonies.

The high point, in all senses, remains the views from the walkways. These will be even better appreciated once they get their full complement of 12 interactive video consoles, identifying the riverside buildings and letting you choose from a range of information about them. This is modern technology used sensibly to illuminate real history, rather than pastiche.

Tower Bridge is open every day from 10am to 5.15pm until the end of October, and from 10am to 4pm from November to March. Admission is pounds 3.60 for adults, pounds 2.50 for children and pensioners. Information on 071-378 1928.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam