Monday 25 February 2008

Museum in Docklands, West India Quay, Canary Wharf, London

The venerable brickwork and the sturdy wooden floorboards make this vast Georgian warehouse a fittingly evocative home for an absorbing, five-year-old, under-visited museum. You start on the top floor with the Romans and work your way through the history of London's once thriving port. The exhibits on floor three are fairly ho-hum until you reach the powerful and deeply disturbing section dedicated to explaining how London prospered on the back of the slave trade. The audio presentation, which depicts a slave master trying to dehumanise his charges, pulls no punches. Some of the panels document the forced separation of families and the brutal way in which disobedient slaves were branded or forced to wear iron masks.

Sailor Town
You will probably descend the stairs depressed by what we are capable of. The second floor begins in the 19th Century and is home to Sailor Town - a life size and rather spooky recreation of a poverty-stricken East End street at night. Even on a Sunday afternoon, you may find yourself stalking the raggedy paving stones of this dark, gloomy alley alone, peering into a primitive living room, window-shopping at the mildly-grotesque Animal Emporium or entering the tiny, spit and sawdust pub. The rest of this floor uses more conventional means, such as models, display panels and videos, to narrate the next 150 years of the roller coaster history of London's docks.

Forage among the pebbles
Finally, down on the ground floor, there is a large and unusual children's area, called Mudlarks, in which your kids can try on a diver's mask, haul sacks of grain or forage among the pebbles of a stream. You can get refreshments at the modest ground floor cafe, adjacent to a large model of HMS Northumberland. Admission to the museum is £5 for adults (free for children) and the tickets are valid for a year. Well worth it. 8/10