Exhibiting the Pleasure Gardens

At the weekend I visited ‘The Triumph of Pleasure’ exhibition at the Foundling Museum. I’ve never been to the Foundling Museum before, and will admit to having made a rather haphazard visit around it. The temporary exhibition at the moment is about the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, and has been curated by David Coke. Coke’s fascination with the gardens has resulted in years of research and the Vauxhall gardens website. The museum’s entry fee included a guide, with an essay that compliments Coke’s style and is neatly illustrated with items from the exhibition.

I’ve been working on an article about exhibiting the Pleasure Gardens, and I was especially excited to see two of the exhibits. The first was Lucy Askew’s model of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which is available to look at on the V&A’s website. The avenue layout of the gardens meant I could put my eye to the case and kid myself I was there for a second. The peculiar magic of museum models has been discussed elsewhere, and if you’re half as sweet on them as I am then download this talk by Alex Werner, at the Anglo-American conference 2009.

My second favourite item was a copy of the gardens’ menu, detailing the portions and prices that Coke’s essay explores in more depth. The gardens were known for their steep prices, and Miles Ogborn has used the ostentatious dining at the gardens as an example of London’s growing modernity. Once I would have been surprised at how much information was stored on one piece of printed ephemera, but I think I’m starting to get used to it.

Perhaps the gardens are having a new moment: my sister recently went to an event at the new London Pleasure Gardens. She couldn’t quite understand why I was so interested in what the floor was like, what the music was like, what food was being served, what the layout of the site was and what everyone was wearing. It seems there were more complaints than just the price of the food.

In my forthcoming paper I look at how the phenomenon of London’s Pleasure Gardens were recreated at the Museum of London. I will write about how exhibitions are not inevitable, and the range of displays that museums choose between. The two pleasure gardens displays are a good example. Coke’s exhibition at the Foundling is tightly focussed and informative. The Museum of London uses film, lighting, sound effects and costume to evoke the sense of visiting the gardens: it probably has more in common with Askew’s model than Coke’s exhibition.

Remaking the Pleasure Gardens at the Museum of London. Photo by author.
For proper review of the exhibition then there are some nice an in depth ones here and here.
EDIT: As of Friday 3rd of August 2012, the London Pleasure Gardens have gone into administration. More here.

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