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 This has been replaced by 'The Celebration Story', a lively exhibit using the most modern animation and audio techniques.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

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen