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They say that London is a collection of individual towns and villages that altogether form this vast metropolis. I love the way that different areas of the capital are distinctive in appearance, in the communities that live there and in the history that has made those areas what they are today. The Islington Museum is a brilliant place to learn about the history that has shaped that particular borough, demonstrating with a small but diverse collection of exhibits how colourful its history is.
Administratively speaking Islington covers a large area of that part of London to the north and east of Kings Cross. It's a large area and includes such notable landmarks and areas as the new Emirates Stadium where Arsenal football club play their home games, The Angel Islington, Finsbury Park and Holloway Women's Prison. Islington 'proper' is centred on Upper Street and runs from the Angel to Highbury corner. Here you'll find the restaurant Granita where, famously, the architects of 'New Labour' would meet to talk shop.
The Islington Museum on John Street is situated next door to the Local History Centre where public records are kept. There's also a collection of documents relating to the playwright Joe Orton who was murdered in the 1960s by his lover Kenneth Halliwell at the flat they shared on nearby Noel Road.
This archive formed the basis of an exhibition I'd gone to see at the museum in early 2012 but the main core of the museum is permanent and free to visit. Usually the temporary exhibition is developed from a collection in the local history archive and the Halliwell-Orton exhibition is a good example. In 1962 the pair were found guilty of defacing library books and imprisoned. They had taken books home (without formally borrowing them) and re-arranged the covers, changing the title, sticking photos of the faces of famous people over those on the covers of the books or fabricating salacious blurb which they stuck over the blurb on the book jacket. They would then quietly return them to the shelves of Islington Library. The Islington History archive retains the covers of the books that were defaced and the 2012 exhibition presented them to the public for the first time.
The main exhibition is not one that need keep you a long time but you should allow at least forty minutes for a decent look at the themes and exhibits and depending on how interested you are you could stay close to ninety minutes.
The exhibits are a good mix of paintings, photographs, historical documents, personal belongings, films and spoken memories. Together they tell the story of Islington over the centuries, in particular it explains how the area became so diverse. I loved the spoken memories of women from the West Indies who had come to Islington to work in the Whittington Hospital. They were moving as well as colourful and I found it fascinating to learn about how nurses were expected to behave in those days; there was a great deal of formality and I learned that the nurses were not permitted to speak directly to the doctors, presumably all communication had to go through Matron. I also really enjoyed the short film about the Italian coffee houses and how the Italian community of Islington developed. They go back much further than I realised and are, for me, an intrinsic part of Islington culture.
There's a look at 'radical Islington' which includes a bust of Lenin who lived and worked in the Clerkenwell district of Islington between 1920 and 1923. He was there with his wife working on his revolutionary newspaper 'Iskra' (the Spark). In 1942 when the Soviet Union were allies of Britain in World War 2 Finsbury Council wanted to create a monument in honour of the friendship and this bust of Lenin, which came from the Soviet Embassy, was at the centre of it. The monument was erected in Holford Square, facing the house Lenin had lived in. However, the bust was vandalised by those who were against communism and who believed that's what the Council was celebrating. The bust was put into storage in 1951 but was found and displayed in Islington Town Hall in the 1970s, however it was again vandalised by protestors and red paint was thrown over it. In the 1980s the bust was a controversial symbol of what the popular press called the 'loony left' and when New Labour were attempting to gain more credibility and distance themselves from the extreme wing of the party it was decided that the bust should move, this time to the Islington Museum where it has remained part of the permanent exhibition ever since.
This collection has been cleverly curated to cover all areas of life - domestic, childhood, work, community, war among others - and although Islington has a colourful and varied history there's a sense that the exhibition focuses on the history that surrounds us in everyday life rather than looking at obviously monumental events or very famous people; I like this approach because it reminds you of the ways our communities have been shaped and how there are lots of interesting things all around us even if we think we live in a boring place. I lived in Islington for a year almost twenty years ago and I learned almost as much in that year as I did in this museum visit.
As good as this museum is I wouldn't recommend making a special trip to visit but it is worth a look if you happen to be in the area or, like us, you want to see one of the temporary exhibtions. I'd say that the exhibtion is suitable for children aged over six as the use of lots of physical exhibits rather than blocks and blocks of text will keep children engaged. Entrance to the main exhibition is free, as are the temporary exhibitions.
The building is wheelchair accessible though disabled parking spaces are apparently difficult to find in the area. The museum is a ten minute walk from Angel Tube and buses stop close by.