It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. On the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth one enters the Museum of London arrested by scenes very much like A Tale of Two Cities. In the first U.K. exhibition for over forty years, Victorian London is brought to life in homage to the greatest urban chronicler of his era.
Visitors of this Old Curiosity Shop are greeted by William Powell Frith’s 1859 portrait of the author; a wistful if somewhat morose look etched across his face, perhaps contemplating the plight of the poor and destitute that are the subject of so many of his works. Alex Werner, the curator, is quick to de-emphasise the interactive nature of the exhibit. Instead, one feels as though they are rummaging through a hodgepodge of miscellaneous artefacts buried in the backroom of an antiques dealer’s. This effect is deliberate and adds to the mise-en-scène. A full representation of Dickensian London is evident through paintings, photographs and costumes strewn across the room. The exhibition also displays original manuscripts including Great Expectations, Dombey and Son and David Copperfield, which give a fascinating insight into how Dickens worked creatively. Particularly of note are his almost illegible chicken-scratch scrawl and the various amendments, illustrating his close attention to detail.
What becomes apparent throughout the course of the exhibition is the extent to which Dickens and London are intrinsically tied together; the ghostly fog that envelops London in the opening description to Bleak House is present once again around the Barbican. One wall is decorated with a detailed nineteenth century street map, which reminds visitors of the infamous midnight excursions that inspired much of Dickens’ work. The desk and chair Dickens sat at to compose his many masterpieces is also an awe-inspiring site.
The most notable part of the exhibition is undoubtedly the specially commissioned film by one of the U.K.’s leading documentary filmmakers, William Raban, which explores the similarities between London after dark today and during Dickens’ time. The great social questions of the nineteenth century including those of wealth, poverty and prostitution are disturbingly echoed in this depiction of modern London.
It seems that two hundred years on, Dickens’ role as a social commentator is no less relevant than it was in his own time.