This is definitely a must-see attraction for any Steampunk visiting London. The first exhibit you come to is called Energy Hall and features full-size steam engines and has interactive features that show you the physics of how they work and give the history of how they fit into the evolution of steam technology as a whole.
But, the absolute best exhibit hall is Making the Modern world. It offers a veritable cornucopia of amazing inventions, including Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1 and a working model of a Victorian-era workshop run on a belt system.
Model of a Victorian belt system workshop
So many gadgets, so little time…
Like the Museum of London, I would definitely recommend this as a great place to take people with mixed interests because the museum also has exhibits on the history of agriculture, real objects used in the early days of space travel and a “4D” cinema that has films on a wide range of topics.
This institution has two different locations, but I only got a chance to make it to the one just north of the Millennium Bridge. (the other is at the seafront and focuses on the history of the docklands and shipping industry). The city of London has a very long history, so there is lots to see that doesn’t fit into my Steampunk theme, which can make it ideal for entertaining a group with varied interests. I loved the open format of the exhibits that allows visitors to meander through history, including one of the best displays on the everyday life during the Roman Empire that my Historian hubby has ever seen.
On the steamy side, there is tons to see. There was an amazing immersive exhibit about pleasure gardens like those that became popular during the 1800s. The darkened space features really cool period clothes, and videos that appear on the walls featuring people wearing them and acting out scenes. The mannequins are also sculptures in their own right and are lit according to what is being shown on the walls. The low light made it difficult to capture with a camera, especially because I didn’t want a flash to ruin the experience for other visitors, but trust me when I tell you it was captivating.
There is also a series of Victorian storefronts that you can walk through that are chockfull of period-appropriate merchandise and props. There is a big-wheel bike out in the open if you want a picture with one.
I could almost hear Sweeny Todd sharpening his razor…
I couldn’t get enough of the toys and paper cut-outs on display
I also liked the displays of shoes, watches, and other technology that were strewn around in some of the other period sections. The exhibit on the suffrage movement was extremely well done, though I was shocked by a lot of what I saw. I had no idea how violent the pursuit of voting rights became in Britain. All in all, it is a wonderful museum with free admission and worth a whole day’s visit.
My favorite part by far of visiting the Tower Bridge was venturing into the engine rooms below street level. The green and black coal-powered hydraulic engines reminded me of a giant mechanical grasshopper ready to spring, and made the whole exhibition worth the admission fee. One of the biggest surprises for me during Steam Tour was how colorful some of these old engines are! If you are a fan of engines and haven’t seem my post about the London Museum of Water and Steam don’t forget to take a look.
How it works: “When it was built, Tower Bridge was the largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge ever completed (“bascule” comes from the French for “see-saw”). These bascules were operated by hydraulics, using steam to power the enormous pumping engines. The energy created was stored in six massive accumulators, as soon as power was required to lift the Bridge, it was always readily available. The accumulators fed the driving engines, which drove the bascules up and down. Despite the complexity of the system, the bascules only took about a minute to raise to their maximum angle of 86 degrees.” From the Tower Bridge website.
For more information and pictures from my visit to the Tower Bridge, check out Parts 1 and 2.
Visiting the bridge and looking at the outside is of course free, but visiting The Tower Bridge Exhibition within has a small fee. Visitors begin by going up into the top of the north tower where there is a short introductory video with a screen that blends into the Victorian era props around it. Afterwards you get to move into the tower and enjoy the historical and artistic exhibits on the East and West Walkways. I can’t say that the walkway exhibits were the highlight, but there was some interesting information about the history of bridge construction for “how does it work?” types. (You should go to their website for more info on what exhibits are currently on view.)
They recently installed glass floors on the West Walkway, but this was shortly after my visit in September 2014 so I didn’t get a chance to experience this aspect of the bridge. I can only imagine the incredible view onto the bustling street below, but I can vouch for the panoramic views of the city from the top of the towers!
These sculptures are perched far above visitors’ heads and are easy to miss
But for me, the best was yet to come. As part of your exhibition admission, you also get to visit the engine room that used to power the raising of the bridge. So check out The Tower Bridge Part 3: The Inner Workings next time!
Unless you are a truly devoted fan of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories and you don’t mind waiting in a long line, I would skip this particular “museum.” Seeing as how Holmes and Watson are literary characters, it is more accurate to call it a historic house with a twist than a museum. I also thought the admission fee was too high for what you get because once you are inside the whole museum only takes maybe 30 minutes to walk through.
That being said, for people who are well versed in Holmesian lore, there are some replica objects like a bust of Napolean from The Adventure of the Six Napoleons as well as some weapons used in the fictional murder cases scattered throughout the house, but the printing on the labels is really small and difficult to read. The top floor is also inhabited by wax figures of some of the most notable characters from the stories like Irene Adler and the King of Bohemia from A Scandal in Bohemia. I thought this was a nice touch, especially because Holmes himself was saved from an assassination attempt in one of Doyle’s tales due to a waxwork replica sitting by the window that was mistaken for the great detective in the flesh.
When my travel zine, Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London, comes out in 2015, you can get some helpful tips about visiting this site. For now, I hope you enjoy my pictures.
After Holmes retires, he devotes his time to beekeeping in the coutryside. This book is on his “bedside” in the museum
These hats and pipe are set out for visitors to use while posing for photos
This is a reference to “Victoria Regina”, or Queen Victoria, from the Sign of Four
The site of the Victoria and Albert Museum was purchased largely through the proceeds from the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was the first international exhibition of its time, though not the last. Many of the wonderful items showcased at these types exhibitions that were held all over Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries eventually found a home at the museum and are still on display today. When walking through the exhibit halls I felt like I was on a scavenger hunt looking for these pieces of history which were seen by millions of people during the course of exhibition and are still breathtakingly beautiful to behold over 160 years later. One of the appeals for me about Steampunk and the era that gave rise to the aesthetic is the emphasis on craftsmanship, and there is no shortage of that at the V&A. Here are two pieces of the most impressive pieces that I encountered during my visit.
This “cathedral in wood” was a gift from the Austrian Emperor, Franz Ferdinand, to Queen Victoria. According to the museum label, it’s decoration reflected the debate about the unification of all German-speaking peoples under one rule. The bookcase had to be at least 20 feet tall, which means it just might hold the entire literary collection of one Steampunk fan 🙂 In the center there is a Belgian altarpiece on display that looked like it had been carved out of the most delicious dark chocolate, but it was also made of wood. These two pieces were not originally shown together, but they both made cameos at the Great Exhibition. The altarpiece reflects the revival of the Gothic style that is often seen in Steampunk works, and makes it a lovely addition to the imposing bookcase.
This symphony in metal is called the Hereford screen, and was on display at the International Exhibition of 1862. Like the altarpiece above, this was a way of harkening back to the Gothic era when churches employed magnificent screens like this one. The choir would stand behind large and ornately carved wooden screens, but this one was intended to showcase new advances in metal-working techniques as much as celebrate the Gothic style. There are several figures on the screen, which is over 10 meters high. The figures could very well have been cast in bronze, but instead were created by using newly-discovered electroplating technology that employed plaster molds and electricity to bend copper to the artist’s will. This is truly an example of old-meets-new in the Victorian era, so it definitely piqued my Steampunk interest.
Have you spotted any pieces of the Great Exhibition or the International Exhibition in London? Please share!
The primary reason I wanted to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum was because I heard about the amazing displays of fashion through the ages. There is a really great circular gallery with men’s and women’s clothing, and right now there is also an exhibit on wedding dresses, though that has an extra charge where the rest of the museum is free. It would be a great place to do research for costumes, both to get visual inspiration as well as great background info. My best pictures were mostly of dresses, but there are lots of great suits, boots and hats for the menfolk as well.