Developing a Museum of the Streets as the Museum of London closes

In December 2022 the Museum of London closes after 45 years on the edge of the Barbican estate, and prepares for a move to former market buildings in West Smithfield.

The new museum promises to be amazing – but it won’t be open until 2025.

Update at June 2024: The Museum is now expected to open in 2026: here’s a “sneak peek” into the site. I’ve added below updates on a number of developments. More at Revisiting a Museum of the Streets.

Below the new London Museum in West Smithfield

Even when its doors are closed, the Museum may well offer some continuing enlightenment and entertainment, building on its impressive digital services and current off-site activities. The Museum of Docklands will remain open.

Update: the Museum has been awarded £650,000 for a cultural programme in Smithfield.

Closure could be a catalyst for exploring the rich but under-realised heritage that we have on the doorstep of the new museum, and in EC1 as a whole.

I think there is scope for developing a Museum of the Streets with walks, talks, maps and the power of smartphones that enable us to connect with neighbourhoods as residents, workers or visitors.

Below are a few ideas I’ve developed in the Exploring EC1 project over the past two years, some of which have previously featured in the Echo. They can be added to other initiatives in the area. For example:

As I reported earlier, the Culture Mile team have developed a new visitor guide to the area covering venues, heritage sites, entertainment and shopping. There’s short films too,

The Clerkenwell-based London Metropolitan Archives has an amazing collections of records and photographs. Just a few of these are featured in a collection created using the Historypin site, developed by another Clerkenwell organisation, Shift Collective.

The LMA collection on Historypin

With Historypin you can show historic photos pinned into contemporary settings using Google Streetview, or matched to current photos. Could that be the basis for a new Echo-backed photo competition? Explore yesterday, picture today.

The Footways project has mapped quiet and interesting routes through EC1, and offered to collaborate in further EC1 experiments.

Update: Footways now have funding from the Culture Mile Business Improvement District Community Fund to develop routes in the City. In 2023 I developed two routes with Footways in Clerkenwell – one on Radical Clerkenwell, and one on Historic Clerkenwell.

There are many self-guided walks available, and highly-knowledgable City guides whose tours could be promoted. A host of smartphone apps allow you to create and publish your own walks, using photos, audio and video.

Update: the Lord Mayor of London, Michael Mainelli, has sponsored development of the Veracity app by which “Residents, employees, and visitors to the City can use their smartphones to point at landmarks and gain instant insights, enhancing their knowledge of the city’s history and operations”. It provides an interactive map of Wikipedia entries for any location.

Above a Google Earth tour, below Layers of London

With my son Dan, I’m developing demonstrations of how this might work with free platforms like Google Earth – and also with Layers of London which has map overlays from the 13th century to today. Mapping examples here.

I’m looking forward to Danny B’s Radical Walk in EC1, and hope it will presage other walks with a range of themes and perspectives. We could help document the walks, adding photos and video to routes and descriptions.

Earlier in the year City councillor Matthew Bell and I suggested in the Echo how we could re-stage Bartholomew Fair both as a physical event, and also virtually using the sort of apps described here. That would help promote the Barts 900 campaign planned by Barts Hospital and St Bartholomew the Great.

Update: the City Corporation’s Destination City team took up the idea of re-staging Bartholomew Fair, and committed £1.5 million to a three-week spectacular in September 2023. Matthew, I and others organised a complementary Cloth Fair on the site of the original. Here’s the website I developed with the City Courant magazine, and the story of the re-staging.

Matthew, together with other local councillors, has offered to help bring together the different interests who might develop a Museum of the Streets. Matthew says:

“There can be few other places in the country as full of history as this tiny area. The City of London is keen to bring more people in to the City. Bartholomew Fair was all about bringing people in to the area for over seven hundred years and having it resurrected in late August as well as a virtual Fair all year round, would be a fantastic way of introducing people to the area, its history as well as everything it has to offer now.

“This though should really be the tip of the iceberg. There is history everywhere here and with the remarkable digital revolution that we are in the middle of, there is no real excuse for not having the history of our streets readily at our fingertips. When it opens, the physical Museum of London in West Smithfield should have no boundary with the Museum of the Streets on the phones in our pockets”.

The Museum of the Streets can be about today and tomorrow, as well as the past. We could create a virtual hub that would bring together information about local groups and activities, and news of future developments, perhaps linked to a new community room planned for Barbican Library.

Update: the library is now planning an innovative community information hub, as well as a community room.

A key idea in proposals for the Business Improvement District, planned for next year, is to build on the Culture Mile “Look and Feel” strategy that maps street-level improvements and proposes ambitious ways to use digital technology through the area.

Update: the Culture Mile BID is undertaking a public realm study, due to be published by autumn 2024.

Creating a Museum of the Streets together would help realise the Commitment to Communities highlighted in the BID proposals:

“Collaboration sits at the heart of the BID model. Understanding the value that each member of our community can contribute to projects is vital. We want to harness the potential of all the communities that make up the Culture Mile area, unlocking new opportunities for all”.

A Museum of the Streets should appeal to the Destination City team, tasked with making the City more attractive to visitors. Through the Museum, let’s develop guides and promote events in ways that work for residents too.

Update: a review of the Destination City programme in 2023/24 proposes a switch from big events – which featured in its first phase – to promotion of the City’s unique culture and heritage.

Back in 2010 the Museum of London pioneered the award-winning StreetMuseum app offering the potential for virtual tours. It was described as “a bid to put the collections of the museum where they belonged, on the streets of London” Unfortunately changes in phone operating systems mean the app is no longer available. Hopefully it will be updated. Either way a Museum of the Streets could offer a complementary approach, harvesting the resources of many groups and organisations, and providing us all with the opportunity to become digital curators and explorers.

Is this too ambitious? Definitely. Some ideas may catch on, others will require research and funding. What I’m aiming to do with the Echo is see how far we might use a print newspaper and its newsletter, together with social media and demonstrations, to foster experiments that complement official plans like the BID and Destination City, drawing on local expertise and enthusiasm. If you are interested in helping realise the Museum, email


1 thought on “Developing a Museum of the Streets as the Museum of London closes

  1. Excellent! You ask if this is too ambitious – certainly not, it all seems very feasible and with such an incredibly rich and diverse history, history that has affected us all in some way in the past, and should not be forgotten or brushed aside very necessary. Bring it all on – and thank you!!

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