It is 2012; the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth, and it would be an understatement to say that people are getting a little bit excited. Aside from two BBC adaptations at Christmas, there is a Great Expectations film out this year and the Daily Mail have even listed their ‘Best of’ Dickens events for 2012. So it’s no surprise that the Museum of London, a city where the author drew inspiration for so much of his work, is hosting an exhibition detailing the capital’s Dickensian heritage. But is it any good?
The exhibition, which claims “to celebrate London as his [Dickens’] muse”, provides visitors with exhibits which show the aspects of the city as it would have been viewed in Victorian times. It draws together artefacts from the authors own life, as well as more general period pieces – writings and pictures from the era – and a couple of modern artistic works which draw inspiration from Dickens’ work.
The exhibition takes the visitor through five separate sections, looking at aspects of life in general as well as specifically those of Dickens; from the city streets, through domesticity in ‘home and hearth’ to ‘life and death’, including Dickens’ own biographical secrets and eventual early death at 58.
While some sections, most notably the room containing ‘amusements of the people’ seem a bit weakly supported and rather unnecessary, overall the exhibition works well. The introduction, and excerpts from a variety of different novels, all impart a sense of life into exhibits such as the Furnival’s Inn watchman’s box or the bier for a child’s funeral that would otherwise have seemed a little sterile and empty. These excerpts also serve to provide a better understanding for a visitor, and there will be more than a few, who know of Dickens without really having read much of his work.
There is also something here for the Dickens geek, with several original manuscripts (for Bleak House, Dombey and Son, Great Expectations, Edwin Drood and David Copperfield) as well as his Pickwick handkerchief and other personal possessions.
But perhaps the most evocative exhibit of all is the most recent, the film The Houseless Shadow by William Raban, which transplants the feelings and themes of Dickens’ essay Night Walks to the setting of modern London at night. The artist spent five months filming footage, “setting off after midnight and returning “in the small hours” to observe and capture London districts and their insomniac communities”. The result, set to minimal sound and narrated passages from the original essay, transports the viewer into another world of nocturnal strangers; revellers, lovers, travellers and the homeless, all infused with an otherness, a difference. The city that is portrayed may have changed greatly in the last 150 years, but one feels that many of the characters would have seemed familiar to Dickens.
The short film provides a poignant full stop to the exhibition overall. Dickens and London sets out to show visitors how much the city provided inspiration for author, allowing him to create characters that will forever ring true in popular imagination. Largely the exhibition succeeds, providing a quick introduction for some, and allowing others to find a new level of interest in one of the world’s best loved writers, and the city life he recorded so vividly.