History is the handrail for which we reach when knocked off balance by the present day.
Therefore it seems apt that at the Museum of London a “timeline handrail” runs from 1688 to 2012, around the new Galleries of Modern London.
At first sight this is a cute way to lay out the span of years through the expanse of the gallery, surrounded by some excellent exhibits that bring past generations of the capital’s people back to life.
But the handrail left me feeling queasy, unsteady on my feet, because here London’s past is for sale.
I don’t mind the principle of sponsorship so much as the way it is done. Critically, for £5000 corporations and wealthy individuals can not only affix their names to a year, but also dictate the very events with which that date should be associated.
It’s a strange price, £5000 – beyond the reach of mass participation by ordinary Londoners, yet chickenfeed for the City’s many firms and institutions. And, the website boasts, it counts as gift aid so…
if you are a 50% higher rate taxpayer, your donation could cost you even less at £2,500.
In other words, the rich may occupy a year of London’s narrative for half the sum that their history-loving cleaners or chauffeurs would have to scrimp and save.
Regular followers of my ramblings will know that I have a special thing for the year 1794. I wondered which of the various happenings of that eventful year might have made it onto the timeline.
- The hounding from Hackney of the nonconformist minister and scientist Joseph Priestley?
- The trial and acquittal of radical leaders after a massed rally of the London Corresponding Society?
- The composer Haydn, writing and performing in the city?
- Publication of Mary Wollstonecraft‘s ‘Origin and Progress of the French Revolution’ or William Blake’s ‘Song’s of Experience‘?
From the latter…
I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe. (1-4)
You’ll see where this is leading.
Now I know nothing of Norton Rose LLP and their business. Well done them, I say, for 217 years of lawyering in London.
Yet this entry inadvertently speaks volumes – more even than those lines of William Blake – about the nature of power in the City of London. The structure of this sponsorship scheme guarantees a history written by the victors. It underwrites the narratives of the already powerful.
When you place your hand on a rail it does more than offer support; it also guides your direction of travel. Where do you want it to lead you?