I was expecting a possibly interesting look at some old buses, and some info on the development of the underground. What I got was seriously enjoyable couple of hours discovering how London's growing population has needed increasingly complex transport, how transport has helped spread London's suburbs and who the people are using and providing these services.
It's a transport musuem with people at the heart of it - and this makes for an accessible and story based experience I'd recommend to quite a variety of visitors. (Great bonus: free kid's entry goes up to age 17!)
Stand in the right spot and the two teams of horses can be heard discussing the pros and cons of their different omnibuses. Complete with bad jokes.
The main entrance once past the front desk is large, bright and covered in graphics, it's a welcoming transition zone with toilets, cloakroom etc. Good signage feeds you to a lift, which subtly 'travels' you back to 1800, and the top floor.
The museum starts at the start of public transport, with sedan chairs and river boats. It's quickly apparent that sound plays a vital role in the museum, with songs, audio of interviews and 'characters' using the transport. These create a city background hum, with good equipment then forming zones where individual audio is clear.
The overall theme of the museum is quickly established. The focus is on people - who uses public transport, who operates it, how it changes their lives. This makes it an engrossing and accessible subject for any visitor, as you then relate to vehicles and networks as a user.
The building itself is a masterpiece of cast iron, and the space is very well used to create an open central hall with galleries spreading off at the sides. The openness is cleverly used, so the rear of display panels upstairs are used to show graphics of 'rushing' commuters.
The building's height allows them to display items in unusual ways, also making the most of the natural light. There's always something to see, without being cluttered.
Getting stuck in.
For those with more than a passing interest in the vehicles, touchscreens provide the facts and details, allowing the enthusiast to get their fix, while not confusing or boring the casual visitor. We flicked through a couple, and information was clearly titled, well layered and of interest - but more than we wanted to spend time reading.
These often accompany panels with a life size image of a driver, and details from their life and work with artifacts where available, and occasional audio. Once again they make the link from vehicles to people, showing the stories behind the transport such as the first coloured bus driver, and the racism he faced.
A shining part of the museum is just how much you can get hands on - sitting in original vehicles, driving a tube train, posing for photographs on the steps of buses. There is very little in the way of do not touch, which made for lots of happy children pottering about, and relaxed parents.
There are fewer vehicles than I expected, but the use of space, plenty of accompanying imagery and lots of artifacts such as uniforms, posters and scale models, sets these vehicles as gems among the collection.
The National Railway Museum in York starts to get a little "oh, another train..." whereas here each vehicle, carriage or car feels special and deserving of your attention.
Kids seem to love dinosaurs and big vehicles, (we also went to the National History Museum, more on that in the future) and London Transport Museum caters amazingly for families. Small question and answer 'games' are dotted about, offering bite sized and often icky facts, and there is a play area with wooden buses to climb over.
The entire museum feels geared towards child friendliness though, with cabinets labeled from above and the side, to be read at all heights, lots of real vehicles to sit in and explore, and large dioramas with magnifying 'peep holes' which them pipe audio into your ear. You get to 'spy' on the construction of the underground, on how trains vented steam, and more.