When you think of the animals which live among us in London, you are likely to conjure up pigeons, squirrels and foxes not the magnificent beasts of the jungle and arctic. A visit to Beasts of London at the Museum of London will change all that. Did you know that London has been home to lions since pre history, to zebras and even a polar bear? You’ll hear about these beasts and many more as you step into the new immersive exhibition at the Museum of London.
Our tour begins back in pre-historic times with a short atmospheric film telling how the lands of Europe used to be joined and ancient beasts roamed freely across what are now seas. In the first of 9 episodes we experience, we can see a jaw bone of a woolly mammoth, which roamed around the lands that became London over 200,000 years ago, and a painting of mammoth hunting set the scene for us.
From here we walk through a series of different rooms, each charting the role of beasts in London’s history from the Romans to modern times.
We start with the Romans, arriving with their armies in AD43 and founding Londinium. Eagles were their symbols of strength and feature in this film about the Roman invaders who became colonisers and farmers. We are also reminded of how much their enjoyed the gladiator games, battling beasts in fatal fights in the London amphitheatre which is now underground in Guildhall (well worth a visit)
Episode 3 takes us into a room which is the Tower of London where a very famous polar bear lived in the royal menagerie back in the 1250s. He would be taken out to swim in the Thames for exercise and to hunt for fish and this was a great sight for anyone nearby who were amazed by this magnificent beast. The exotic animals in the royal menagerie included lions, zebras and even tigers but luckily London Zoo became their home where the conditions were much more suitable.
Episode 4 is all about the plague, the killer of 1665 which took about 100,000 lives in London. An apothecaries room is full of the potions people would take to ward off the dangers around them as the cause of the plague was unknown. We hear a spirited argument between the rats and the fleas to find out who was the killer and learn it was a bacterium who was the real baddie. If you are brave enough you can look at an embalmed rat!
Moving on to episode 5 to escape rats but no, there are more rats! We meet Tiny the Wonder, a star rat-catcher dog who took part in rat-baiting where men would watch Tiny take on up to 200 rats in a pit and place bets on how many Tiny could kill in each session. Spooky use of film shows us rats swarming round Tiny surrounded by shouting gamblers – ghastly!
One of the saddest rooms in number 6 when the circus comes to town and we learn of the horrible treatment of these animals and this photo of dressed up elephant shows his sadness. We learn about one famous elephant, Jumbo himself, who was living at London zoo but became too unpredictable and so was sold to the circus where he became hugely popular and perhaps less predictable? Barnum’s circus was known as the Greatest Show on Earth and a programme proclaims its wonders.
It’s time for horses to take centre stage in room 7, where a set of carousel ponies are just waiting for you to sit on, completely irresistible (!) and see the films on the walls from a horse’s point of view. In this room we hear all about the importance of horses to the life of London from horse racing, to police work and delivery and transport.
You may think you recognise the voices overs as you walk around and yes you will. Pam Ferris is the Roman eagle, Brian Blessed is Bacterium, Kate Moss is the fox, Thomas the horse is Nish Kumar, Governatore the horse is Stephen Mangan and Angellica Bell is the rat. So listen out for them as you are in each room.
Pigeons are episode 8 but not as we know them as a huge metal pigeon made out of the metal plates of a London taxi greets you at the far end of the exhibition rooms. It’s an amazing piece of work looming out of the dark and a reminder that Trafalgar Square used to be inundated with them, landing on you and flapping everywhere. Luckily feeding them was banned back in 2003 and hawks brought in to clear the square for visitors and locals.
Our final beasts are those that live among us now, the urban foxes, the birds, the cats and even the fish in the rivers.
The whole experience is fun and informative with imaginative use of visuals and sound coming from a great partnership between the museum staff and the staff and talented students from the Guildhall Schools of Music and Drama who bring it all to life for us.
Don’t miss my favourite beasts in the shop on the way out!
Beasts of London is a paid for exhibition although the rest of the Museum of London is free to enter any time. For more information about this exhibition and the Museum of London check their website: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london
Full disclosure: I was invited by the museum to visit this exhibition for the purposes of this review. This has not affected my opinions but I feel it is important to be transparent .