After the holidays the Museum is open again each day from 10-5. High tides and a steady stream of visitors for boat trips and river walks, so the right time for a review.
In the closing days of 2017 and on the feast day of St Barbara, patron saint of tunnellers, the Museum was delighted to acquire at public auction an archive of thirty drawings about the Thames Tunnel. Many of the drawings were executed by Brunel himself, and are exceptional for their beauty and artistic merit, for their technical detail and for the insight they give into the development of Brunel’s career as engineer and designer. Experts describe this as the most significant collection of Brunel drawings in existence, and we are very grateful to the National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Art Fund, Friends of National Libraries and V&A Purchase Grant Fund for their generous help putting together a bid.
The Thames Tunnel was once the biggest and most famous construction site in the world, but along the way there was disaster and heroism. The Thames Tunnel archive is not just a collection of engineer’s drawings, the archive tells the story of danger and even heartbreak. In one drawing, a daring young Brunel makes descent by diving bell; in another he takes a boat the length of the flooded tunnel then crawls through he mud to inspect damage to the cage where six men died. He is crouched by lantern light, in a pocket of air beneath the river – and without his space suit! This extraordinary adventure story has been hidden in a family album for almost two hundred years, and the drawings are as fresh and the colours as bright as they were the day they were painted. Some of the drawings are on our website and the rest will soon follow.
The year has been a very good one for the Museum: visitor numbers and receipts are at their highest level ever. Thanks to the efforts of our wonderful team of volunteers, we have been successful attracting thousands of visitors to a busy programme of events at a site that is picturesque as well as internationally important. Numbers have been swelled by audiences at concerts and theatre in the Grand Entrance Hall, opened by His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, whose visit was undoubtedly a highlight. But now the Museum has for the first time in its history a collection of national – indeed international – significance. This is a very good start to the Year of the Engineer and a huge step for the Museum. The acquisition helps, strengthens and re-frames our recent Capital bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. We will hear in March…
Custodianship of such an important archive brings the Museum new responsibilities as well as opportunities. We have submitted a bid to Heritage Lottery Fund to build a new gallery to house these beautiful drawings, and we launch a fundraising campaign to build proper facilities for our growing number of visitors.
Meanwhile our work in the local community continues, and we thank North Southwark Environment Trust, Team London Bridge Rotherhithe Community Council and St Saviours & St Olav’s for their generous help with the Playscheme and other arts activities. We receive no revenue funding, so these small project grants are vital to the work we do.