History of the Collections
The Museum of London’s collections reflect the collecting practices of its four constituent institutions: the Guildhall Museum, founded in 1826; the London Museum founded in 1911; the Museum of London itself, opened in 1976, and the Museum of London Docklands, opened in 2003.
The Guildhall Museum was founded to provide ‘a suitable place for the reception of such Antiquities as relate to the City of London and Suburbs as may be procured or presented to the Corporation’. It tended to collect objects from the distant past, including excavated finds acquired piecemeal from builders or antiquarians. It also collected curiosities and general ‘bygones’, such as wooden shop signs and trade tokens, and historic items associated with City livery companies or churches.
The London Museum spread its collecting net wider. It was interested in objects that represented London’s present as well as its past. Its founders made public appeals for donations and had a broad minded approach to what was accepted. The basic collecting criterion was 'only objects found in London or manufactured in London'.
The museum began to build up collections of fine and decorative arts, costume, printed ephemera, theatrical material and social history from 19th and 20th century London.
Private collectors had an influence on the early acquisitions made by the Guildhall and the London museums. Both institutions were starting from scratch and actively solicited benefactors prepared to sell or give their collections for public exhibition. The objects reflected the collecting tastes of the day:
- John Walker Bailey - Roman and medieval antiquities
- James Smith - archaeology
- H.B. Hanbury Beaufoy - trade tokens
- Thomas Gunston - Roman and medieval antiquities
- Hilton Price - antiquities and bygones
- J.A. Seymour Lucas - costume
- J. G. Joicey - decorative arts
- The Garton collection - English glass
- The Tangye Collection - Cromwelliana
- The King Collection - Penny Toys
- The Layton Collection - antiquities, ethnography
With the formation of the Museum of London in the 1970s, a new generation of curators began to take a more active role in shaping the collection. The scope and scale of collecting increased.
The growth of professional archaeology meant that excavated material began to be acquired systematically and en masse. Now, whole assemblages were kept and logged: rather than, as before, selected finds only.
The Museum aspired to collect contemporary London in a more ambitious way. Curators saw themselves as documenting change, through photography, oral history and mass collecting of artefacts, particularly ‘working history’ items from firms closing down. A lot of material related to London’s Docks came into the collections, leading eventually to the opening of the Museum of London Docklands in 2003.
In more recent years, the museum’s collections have reflected changing curatorial practices which seek to make collecting a more collaborative process. Many Londoners have contributed their life stories to the Museum’s oral history archive. Many others have contributed their own choice of artefacts to the collection through contemporary collecting projects, such as ‘Collecting 2,000’. Current collecting aims to reflect the character of contemporary London, in particular its ethnic and social diversity.
The museum continues to add new material of all types and dates to its collection. See collections news