London Transport Museum

The London Transport Museum has a £15 entry fee for a one time admission or the same price for an annual pass. It only made sense to go for the annual pass even if I don’t make it back as you never know when I may be in town next over the coming year.  Easy to get to on the underground at Coventry Gardens it is situated in one corner of the touristy area.

The exhibits are a tad confusing at first. You commence by entering a lift which has the double duty of taking you back in time whilst spiriting you up to the second floor. It isn’t clear where to start when the doors of the elevator doors open. Obviously you can only go one way, outward away from the elevator, but there are 4 rows to follow and they all start at the elevators to tell their stories. There are a few rows of displays and it is unclear which is the first one should see. I opted to start on the left with “water way traffic” go to the end of that topic, walk back to the elevators and start anew down a different themed path, 4 times. The exhibit audio is loud and quite distracting on this not so busy day, making it hard to read and focus when jet lagged.

For the kids visiting the museum there is a ticket stamper trail that they have to validate at various spots. The ticket stamper trail boasts a map which has a line somersaulting through the top floor. I wasn’t keen of the whirling dervish approach the map draws out. I am a linear learner and like to follow one idea through to the end of the display, hence my execution of the floor. In addition to the trail there are small interactive kid’s displays here and there with cartoonish drawings teaching interesting tidbits, as well as an underground train driver simulator that kids young and old can have a go at. A kid’s play area off to one side and many actual decommissioned vehicles on display had most of the children in attendance’s attention today.

Muffled announcements regarding tours of the poster exhibition commemorating the 150 anniversary of the underground caught my attention but gave me little information. It was to start at the information desk; the girl at the complimentary coat check thankfully deciphered this for me and passed on rather rudimentary directions to said desk. I all but sent up smoke signals in my effort to find the info desk and there are few helpful posted maps. The stamper trail was still a bit of a mystery to me as I was not given it upon my entry.  When I spied them later I thought they looked like they were just for children. I eventually wound my way through displays and vehicles, up stairs and down stairs, until I found the well hidden desk. My guess is that it probably sees few people asking questions as they too cannot find it. The most asked question to the staff would probably be where is the info desk, after where are the toilets (remember in England they are never restrooms, washrooms, bathrooms always toilets).

I found the tour leader attempting to blend in with museum patrons (well just me really since no one else could find the bloody desk) only after I inquired at the information desk if I had missed the tour in my lengthy search for its starting point. It wasn’t until my query that he grudgingly dug a museum name tag out of his pocket and wore it. He asked me if I was there for the tour, a rather silly question since he had just heard me speaking with the information staff three feet away about the tour and they had motioned in his direction when they showed me the starting point. He then informed me that there may not be a lot of people on the tour as sometimes just one person or none at all show up. I told him it may be because the announcement for the tour was indecipherable over the public address system just like a regular underground PA. He didn’t seem to like it too much when I advised him the sound was muffled and tinny perhaps better enunciated announcements would help more people grace you with their presence. He and I were off to a grand start. He looked like he wanted to bolt and I was grumpy after traipsing thought the building wasting time. After he unsuccessfully tried to solicit other guests already in the exhibit to join us the guide resigned himself to having to spend a half hour giving me a personal tour of the collection. He pointed out famous artists who had done artwork over the past 150 years, along with controversial and popular posters. How the styles changed as both the city and tube ridership changed were also topics covered. It was an interesting exhibit as one does not think about the various companies that form today’s unified modern underground and a guided tour is always my preference when given the opportunity. My favourite piece was a set of 1938 posters by Man Ray.  The aim of the early posters was to drum up business for the fledgling underground, reassure passengers of it’s safety and ease of use.  Present day goals have included informing passengers and reinforcing proper etiquette.  The latter was the subject of a 1980’s poster card that has the honour of being the most stolen London Underground art piece.  It featured a reminder to lower the volume on personal tape players when they were first popular.   Once finished with the exhibit you can vote for your favourite poster by QR code on a mobile phone, by touch screen computer at the exit of the display or once at home online via the London Transport Museum website.

After my private tour I was headed back to where I left off my learning.  I came across a man who was an American train enthusiast from New York. He was lost whilst trying to locate the lifts to see a special vehicle. He also had a bit of a lost in translation moment going on with the staffer he asked for directions. She pointed him to the way up using the very English term “lift” as he had a puzzled look on his face he looked at me and said “does she mean elevator?” The girl laughed and said “yes lift, elevator whatever you call it is over there.”  The American followed me to the car and was eager to tell me of his visit thus far to London. People seem to like to chat with me, and I let them.  He had just arrived and was meeting extended family for the first time. He had been to the city twice before and was very proud of this fact, I daren’t tell him this was my third time here this month. He seemed to have fallen in love with the city as much as I have and I love to see that in people. He spoke a mile a minute on our two floor ascension, divulging his passion for trains began when he was hired as a metro worker in the big apple as I listened. We parted ways after the doors opened and he went off in search of a photo opportunity of his prized railcar. He did find it as later in afternoon I encountered him again and bid me a good day as he motioned to his camera and said “I got the snaps I wanted”. I wished him well on his journey and meeting his family.  He strode off as fast as he talked.

The First floor (never to be confused with the ground floor in England) had a much better flow. It was clearer where the beginning was and you followed a chronological and topical order.  the most memorable exhibit being the one describing how over one hundred years ago the tunnels were dug.  My favourite part of the museum though was the ground floor with the trolley busses, double decker busses, taxis and trams. My great uncle is a lifelong antique car enthusiast and retired bus driver in Canada.  He had a large collection of vehicles he himself restored, showed in rallies and featured in movies but most of all he cherished them.  I thought of him as I snapped my own pictures of the vehicles and read accounts of the employees.

The display on the role of the local transportation during the wars was well done as was the section explaining rider etiquette. I would go back but not right away and would recommend the museum as well to both history and vehicle buffs, a great place for young and old.  The London Transport Museum like any good tour ends by exiting through the gift store.   The gifts area was well stocked with unique and affordable items.  The store is open to anyone who passes by and later the museum itself.