Written by Simon Murphy, Lead Curator of Digging Deeper
In our new permanent tunnelling history gallery, we set ourselves a number of challenges. At the most basic level we needed to bring the tunnelling story up to date to include the Elizabeth line opening later this year. The main display was ten years old, but a large part of it – a full-size representation of a tunnelling machine from 1890 with three mannequin figures, was first installed more than twenty years ago.
We also wanted to highlight the individual contribution of the engineer James Henry Greathead to tube tunnelling from 1870 right up to the present. What made the project a challenge was that we wanted to tell the story succinctly in a series of videos and key objects in a new tunnel-shaped space, without the need for traditional text panels.
An additional consideration was that the tunnelling story is only one part of the larger narrative of the growth of tube railways, alongside the development of electricity and lifts/escalators. Whilst these other display elements stayed mostly the same, they were spruced up, and we added floor graphics to help visitors distinguish the different story strands.
To create a more immersive experience we built an enclosed tunnel space, that visitors enter through an arch resembling an arch from the first tunnel under the Thames, dug by Marc Brunel between 1825 and 1843. The new tunnel space extends four metres out from the original period tunnel mock-up, using theatrical lighting effects to first mask and then reveal Greathead’s 1890 tunnelling shield.
The main narrative video is projected into the circular tunnel shape, with three shorter videos focussing on more specific object-related stories appearing on the sides of the tunnel. Broadly, these cover Greathead’s first shield and the Tower Subway tunnel it built in 1870, the refinement of the shield from 1890 and its use on the expanding tube railway network, and the era of computer-guided integrated Tunnel Boring Machines (or TBMs) used on the extension of the Jubilee line in the 1990s and on an unprecedented scale on the Crossrail project from 2012 to 2015.