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On September 2, 350 years ago, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about ‘an infinite great fire’ raging in London. Homes burned, people scrambled to save their goods and pigeons ‘hovered about the windows and balconies till they some of them burned their wings’. It’s a compelling tale but, for a museum, a tricky one to tell. How do you stage an exhibition when so many of the artefacts have been incinerated?
There are some poignant objects in the Museum of London’s show about the Great Fire: a Bible with singed pages, a heat-buckled key, a half-finished piece of embroidery, apparently salvaged from the blaze. But many of the exhibits are representative of the kind of objects that were around at the time; generic 17th-century wine bottles stand in for the flasks Pepys buried in the garden to keep them from the flames.
The interactive bells and whistles include a stylised recreation of Pudding Lane, complete with the artificial scent of bread to evoke the bakery where the fire began. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that all this is compensating for the lack of objects with the gee-whiz factor. It's a show designed with pint-sized visitors in mind; children will enjoy fighting flames on a touch screen and dressing up as firefighters. Adults may find Pepys’ prose gives a more vivid account of the catastrophe.
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