The East End of London has long been famous as a place to eat, drink, make merry and indulge in pleasures of the flesh. But there’s a more cerebral side to sin city, and the streets near Hotel Indigo London—Aldgate are filled museums, art galleries and layers of history that tell a rich story of the neighbourhood’s culture.
First stop on any culture vulture’s itinerary should be the Whitechapel Gallery, right next to Aldgate East tube station. Half of the building is the former Whitechapel Library which opened in 1892; it was nicknamed the ‘University of the Ghetto’ as it provided education for an impoverished part of the city. Writers such as the playwright Arnold Wesker and historian Jacob Bronowski studied here.
In 1905, the gallery opened next door, in a splendid art nouveau building. Since then it has hosted memorable exhibitions, including the first English exhibition of Picasso’s Guernica in 1938, depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. In the 1990s Whitechapel Gallery was instrumental in the rise of the Young British Artists (YBAs), including Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst. The library closed in 2005 and was taken over by the art gallery.
[PHOTO: John Stezaker, Untitled (5 Nudes), Circa 1980, Silkscreen on linen at Whitechapel Art Gallery, photo by Misti Traya]
This area has played host to refugees fleeing religious discrimination in Ireland and France, Jews from Russia and Poland, and more recently immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan. This rich cultural mix is celebrated at the Museum of Immigration and Diversity at 19 Princelet Street, a short walk from Aldgate East. The museum rarely opens —check the website for dates—but even if it’s closed the surrounding area is a living museum by itself.
Here you’ll find the grand 18th century houses built by Huguenot (French Protestant) immigrants who became rich in the silk trade. The houses fell into disrepair but most have been beautifully restored, now homes to famous artists like Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George. No visit to this part of London would be complete without a look round Christ Church Spitalfields, built by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a student of Sir Christopher Wren, between 1714 and 1729. It’s free to look around and there’s usually somebody on hand to tell you more about this icon of East London.
To further understand this area’s history it’s worth taking a detour to the Museum of London Docklands located in what were once the biggest and busiest docks in the world where goods and people arrived from all over the globe. It’s just a short hop away on the Docklands Light Railway.
If you fancy a quick drink, it’s well worth popping into The Golden Heart on Commercial Street. This pub was the centre of the YBA scene in the 90s and 00s. It’s run by East End legend Sandra Esquilant and her daughter Katie, and contains works by local artists.
[PHOTO: The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, photo by Misti Traya]
Heading north east from Spitalfields, you’ll come to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. Owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum and housed in a red brick building that resembles a railway station, it’s a wonderland of discovery for both adults and kids, displaying antique doll houses, teddy bears and robots from the 1970s, along with an ever-changing line-up of exhibitions.
About ten minutes walk up the road, over the border in Hackney, you’ll find a museum that is certainly not for children, The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History. Run by local eccentric Viktor Wynd, the museum is inspired by Victorian ‘cabinets of curiosities’ which were collections curated by whimsy rather than any sense of order. Wynd’s museum contains all kinds of esoterica including skeletons of mythical beasts, dodo feathers, and unmentionable items belonging to celebrities as well as artworks by Leonora Carrington and Sebastian Horsley. They hold regular talks and there’s an excellent bar upstairs for combining pleasures of the head and flesh at the same time.
[PHOTO: Upstairs bar at the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, photo by Oskar Proctor]
Finally cross the road, head south back into Bethnal Green and you’ll come to Vyner Street, an unassuming little cobbled street crammed with contemporary galleries. On the first Thursday of the month, they’re open late at night, with a carnival atmosphere. You never know, you might find a Tracey Emin of the future here, or at least have fun trying.