Can something as messy and complex as the issues surrounding mass global urbanisation be squeezed into a popular exhibition? It is a challenge Ricky Burdett attempted in his 2006 Venice architecture biennale, and ended up bamboozling many visitors with a dense slew of diagrams and statistics, which felt like a geography textbook stuck on the wall. It is something tech giant Siemens have also tried, in their Crystal visitor centre in east London’s Royal Docks, but the result has the inevitable whiff of a corporate showcase.
Now the Museum of London – that most awkward of urban institutions, marooned on a roundabout in the financial Square Mile – is the latest to tackle the fact that 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. Sadly The City Is Ours hasn’t made much progress on how to make the topic meaningful or engaging. The content is mostly inherited from a show that began at the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris (with an extra section on London at the end), and it’s like a pick’n’mix of school curriculum themes, lacking any sense of direction.
The first section, Cities Under Pressure, feels like a primary school science fair, with a handful of exhibits positioned on stands at random throughout the room. Here we learn that cities go down into the ground as well as up into the air, with a model showing tube lines and sewers beneath a street. There we hear of something called street art, which is art in public locations, “sometimes around socially committed issues”. One stand interprets “digital traces” in the city, like text messages and phone calls, in the form of abstract sounds, while another shows footage of flashmobs and protests in the Arab spring, both apparently the product of the internet and public space. For those unlucky enough to remember the original contents of the Millennium Dome, and its wall-to-wall displays of interactive platitudes, it will all be painfully familiar.
The second section, Urban Futures, has a bit more meat, showcasing some of the many initiatives being developed by governments, businesses and communities to combat various urban challenges around the world. A series of short films introduce residents talking about their home cities of Medellín, Copenhagen, Detroit and South Korea’s “smartcity” , but there is little critical commentary beyond: “It’s great to live here because of the cable car/cycle lanes/urban farms/CCTV cameras (delete as appropriate).”
Some interesting inventions are highlighted, such as intelligent LED street lighting, which automatically dims when there’s no one around, and Tokyo’s , which stores bikes vertically in great underground elevators. There are a wide range of community-led initiatives, too. Picking up on the slow food philosophy, the movement encourages city inhabitants to live at a slower pace, reduce pollution and support neighbourhood shops, as “an antidote to the adverse effects of globalisation”.
The final interactive map showcasing 25 initiatives. Photograph: David Parry/PA
It’s the same story in the final London-themed section, where a big interactive map on a screen highlights 25 worthy initiatives across the city, from Open Data Camden – a project to put 300 different datasets online, on everything from parking bays and planning applications to housing stock and road accidents – to Museum Freecycle in Kennington, a hub that allows museums to share unwanted items. The captions and photos that pop up on the screen will thankfully be augmented by real life discussions every Thursday, when each of the 25 groups will host a lunchtime event.
Finally, in a nod to the social media age, the cafe area has been ringed with a halo of LEDs that spell out words trending on Twitter in London at that moment, along with a screen giving you the lowdown on the city’s emotions. When I visited, Harrow was declared to be the happiest borough, while Haringey was the saddest (perhaps due to the council’s recent decision to flog huge swaths of public property to the private sector. The trending words dancing around the perimeter of the cafe, meanwhile, read “Wimbledon single market doom” – an appropriately jumbled haiku for an exhibition that never really manages to find its way.