Review: ‘Fire! Fire!’ at Museum of London
This year marks the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London and to commemorate the occasion, the Museum of London are hosting a dedicated exhibition, ‘Fire! Fire!’. Our reporter Igor Nikolskii leaps straight into the flames to deliver his verdict…
It seems that the Museum of London has a desire to let their displays create a new genre of artistic masterpieces; there are no other words to describe Fire! Fire!, an unmissable exhibition dedicated to one of the greatest catastrophes in London’s history.
350 years ago, in September 1666, a small spark in a bakery on Pudding Lane started the three day-spanning fire which reduced the then-Medieval City of London to ashes. Since then, the blaze has been regarded as one of London’s key episodes, permanently shaping its history.
It would perhaps seem impossible to find a new way to describe such a notorious event. However, the Museum of London still managed to surprise this reviewer, creating an original and unprecedented product.
It all starts with a recreation of Pudding Lane: the visitors must fight with the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dark and narrow corridor packed with silhouettes of old buildings, illuminated solely by weak candlelight. Massive wooden brackets were thankfully spared by the fire and are now exposed for everyone to see, showcasing some of the only surviving architecture from the street in its 17th century guise.
The writings on the nearby black walls, on the other hand, tell the story of the City of London in 1666 – a place of rotten wood and animal waste that has just survived a plague and is now trying to survive a violent conflict with Holland and France.
This faithful replica of Pudding Lane ends in a large darkened room, with a timeline of the fire painted in warm colours for those interested to read. At the center of the room, on a big table, lies something that resembles a big, flat piece of bread; look closer and you will realize that it is actually a map of the city.
We are now in the unfortunate bakery where everything started, where Thomas Farriner, a baker, fell asleep and forgot to extinguish the fire in the oven.
From here on out, you start noticing the ominous smells which foreshadow the impending tragedy: firstly, it’s the scent of freshly made bread, then something roasted and, in the end, the unbearable smell of burning wood. This multi-sensory experience does a superb job of taking you back more than three centuries to make you both a witness of and actor in the explosive disaster.
The next room is a masterpiece of interactivity, designed for visitors of all ages. Looking at the few objects that survived the fire – a Bible with burnt pages, smelted coins as well as shattered glass and scarred stones – provides you with a great insight into the life of Londoners at the time, allowing you to really understand what they lost.
One of the most astonishing remaining artefacts from the period of the Great Fire is a 17th century fire engine, which comprised of a massive wooden barrel, wheels and long wooden arms. The sight of this immense feat in engineering will undoubtedly stimulate the curiosity of countless attendees about its operations, so it’s to the credit of the exhibition’s creators that they deal with such queries in careful detail.
Here, children can engage in different activities such as packing a trunk with a limited space, trying on a firefighter’s suit and carrying buckets of water, or even trying to extinguish a virtual fire bursting out on a digital screen.
If you are more interested in the historical aspect of the story, though, then you can read plenty of real-life accounts from the people who survived the fire; one notable example is the diary of Samuel Pepys, who gives a detailed description of the entire catastrophe.
The last part of the exhibition is dedicated to the post-1666 incarnation of London. Clearly aimed at an adult audience, this section deals with many of the questions raised three centuries ago, not least the following: who’s to blame and what’s next?
The answers provided to the first question raise some interesting conspiracy theories that are methodically explained to the public. Yet the true emotional experience of this final room is delivered by British actors, who impersonate the people who lost everything in the fire and went on to live in the so-called ‘refugee camps’ of the 1660s.
Ultimately, we’re shown the negotiations which took place between Sir Christopher Wren – who planned to build a fire-resistant city – and the authorities, who were simply struggling to find the money to rebuild London as quickly as possible. The result of these debates was the City of London as we know it today.
And perhaps this is the real message behind Fire! Fire!, a message that is modern and still incredibly relevant: this chapter of our history shows the resilient essence of a city that never sleeps and never dies, resurging from its ashes and always finding a way to reinvent itself.
Fire! Fire! will continue to reside at the Museum of London until April 17, 2017. To book tickets, call 020 7001 9844 or visit http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london