By Sam Mullins OBE, Museum Director
It really was time to get out from behind the laptop; two months on from suspending our operations at Covent Garden and beyond it was time to go and make sure for myself that the Museum was still there. A brisk five-mile cycle ride on a sunny afternoon would be just the ticket, a slice of lockdown London from Hackney to Westminster. Pumped up the tyres, oiled the moving parts, dug out my helmet and hi-vis jacket and I was soon rolling past De Beauvoir Square with its socially distanced families enjoying the sun, residential terraces, Wilmington Square with children playing, through streets empty of people but houses and flats full of activity.
The City Road was nose-to-tail traffic, construction site on Pitfield St was back to work, vans delivering and joggers and purposeful walkers out on the quiet side streets. Buses passed with a few separated passengers. I passed a string of closed museums; the Postal Museum and Mail Rail, Dickens House and the British Museum itself, all like us wondering when and, in some cases, how they would open again. As I approached Covent Garden, the city became noticeably more empty; no shops to service, no hotels open, just a few solitary individuals marvelling at the emptied out metropolis, one solitary couple eating ice creams on the Piazza; ‘where did they get those from?’ I wondered.
The London Transport Museum is in suspended animation; the lifeblood of its visitors, sounds and videos frozen, its shop just waiting for the footstep of a customer to spring back into life, those polished buses and trains awaiting the next passenger to be engaged and tell the stories of transport in London, the Hidden London exhibition itself hidden away.
In the shop, the merchandise was under wraps, the tills open and empty, the screens at the entrance desk flickering blankly. But our ABM cleaning team have deep cleaned the entire museum and ten years of wax removed from the floors which makes them as good as new again.
The Piazza had metaphorical tumbleweed blowing across it, despite a golden sunny afternoon; shops all closed, bars and pubs blanked up. Security guards patrolled in pairs, rubbish bins emptied, a scatter of fellow sightseers shared the unaccustomed peace and quiet. It was awe-inspiring to see the usually frantic Piazza free of people.
But in workrooms and box rooms, on kitchen tables and desks across London, the Museum is very much alive. Working remotely, the ‘bare bones’ Museum team are planning our future. Online trading has nearly doubled in lockdown as gifts and games are despatched, while home educational materials and new digital content such as the Hidden London hang-outs and Poster Power have also kept the LTM flag flying. We are now taking in research insights and experience from European transport museums on what our customers will need when they return to us; enforced social distancing, visible cleanliness, signage and floor markings to name but a few but above all a warm welcome back. We will issue guidance on walking and cycling to Covent Garden, offer online timed tickets, contactless payments, hand sanitisers and no queues in the not too distant future.
So, we get creative, plan and then change our plans as the situation develops, as government and mayoral advice and public sentiment moves on. Our earliest hope is to offer something at Covent Garden and maybe Acton Depot for some part of the summer holidays. This Welcome Back blog will keep you in touch with our thinking and plans, and respond to your questions and suggestions. And it goes without saying, we are very keen to be welcoming you back just as soon as possible. Watch this space.