The Museum of London Docklands is housed in a Georgian warehouse that was built in 1802 to store rum, coffee and sugar. It is located in the Isle of Dogs, east London just a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Canary Wharf, an area famous for its finance industry. The skyscrapers looming in the background make for a stark contrast between the old and new. It opened to the public in 2003 and covers the history of London’s River Thames and the Docklands. The museum is set out on three floors and tells the story of the river, ports and people in historical order from the arrival of the Romans to the development of Canary Wharf. There are 10 permanent galleries, which include London, Sugar and Slavery; First Port of Empire and Docklands at War. We visited on a rainy Sunday so made a quick entry but with the River Thames at your feet you can see why it would make an idyllic picnic destination in the summer months.
We began our visit to this free entry museum at the current family friendly exhibition Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail, which is running until 3rd September. This exhibition is all about the archaeological objects that were discovered during the Crossrail project. The building of the Elizabeth Line, which opens in 2018, has been one of the largest construction projects in Europe. Around 500 objects are on display and tell the story of 8,000 years of human history. A wealth of fascinating stories have been unveiled with prehistoric flints, which tell us that there were Londoners living on the Thames 9,000 years ago, a Roman bronze medallion that dates to AD 245 found at the excavation at Liverpool Street, and human remains including a skeleton of a Londoner who died from the plague. Although possibly more appealing to slightly older children, I managed to have a decent look around due to their child friendly displays. These included buttons and flaps down low so you can tell the kids interesting facts at their height level. We found out that all the huge machines that bored the train tunnels were given women’s names. As we came to the end of the exhibition my 2 year old made a beeline straight for the wooden Brio train set, enabling me a bit of time to reflect.
We were then booked into the Mudlarks Children’s gallery, a 45 minute session, which was superb. You can weigh cargo, tie nautical knots and load a tea clipper. There are lots of interactive displays that tell the museum stories in a fun and stimulating way. We learnt some interesting facts such as there are 125 different species of fish living in the Thames. My daughter was thrilled to see some water where lots of splashing commenced. This allowed a great opportunity to educate her on how things float and sink. We also had a chance to try on a deep sea diver’s helmet which was met with lots of laughter. There is a soft play area for babies and toddlers where they can climb into a boat or drive a DLR train. It was a great space and meant for once I could let my 5 month old have a kick around, to the amusement of his big sister.
We were all famished at this point so made our way to the café for a bite to eat. There is a children’s selection, which included sandwiches and healthy bites such as fruit and vegetable sticks and I have it on good authority that the babyccinos are rather tasty. With a toddler’s tendency to not sit still for very long the children’s books provided were very welcome during lunch. Of course with tea comes cake and the cupcakes were just as delicious as they looked.
We then decided to explore the rest of the museum so we made our way up to the third floor where we stumbled across some excellent displays. My personal favourite was ‘Sailor Town’ where the old docks from the 19th century have been recreated. The dark, spooky atmospheric streets with quaint shops such as print sellers, supply merchants and a pub, are so real you are instantly transported back in time. The smells and sounds of clock bells in the fog all add to its authenticity. It was just a wonderful, immersive experience and fun for all the family. Another highlight was the docklands room set out as it would have been 100 years ago. The décor really set the scene and my daughter was very happy sitting in the chair at the piano, which made for a great photo opportunity.
As I have a personal interest in Second World War history, The Docklands at War gallery was a must see. The docks were the first target in the London Blitz and having survived were key in aiding the war effort from Dunkirk to D-Day. Striking images on display portray what life was like for Londoners during this horrific time. A Consol bell shaped air raid shelter, which could hold two adults, helped to make this gallery a more pleasurable experience with a toddler. As well as providing an atmospheric location for further education on life in London it also proved to be a great place for a little game of hide and seek much to my daughter’s delight. Kids will be kids and the atrocities of war will come to light at a later stage.
Facilities are fantastic with plenty of high chairs, changing facilities, activity bags and word games on offer, all making the experience with two small ones much more pleasurable. On a Sunday they offer family tours for ages 5+ which inform you about life in London, as you smell, see and hear the past in a multisensory session. On our way out we had a quick wander round the shop, which has lots of interesting books on the city and plenty of children’s nicknacks.
The Museum of London Docklands was an all round enjoyable experience. Our visit was definitely a success as my daughter has been exclaiming ‘museum’ ever since. We will be revisiting to explore further galleries and would definitely recommend it as a family friendly day out in London.