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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... London Transport Museum

Red buses, black cabs, tube, trams, trains, boats and bike share, this museum delves into the history of London's iconic transport network.

The London Transport Museum, located in Covent Garden, London, is a treasure trove of the city's transportation history, and can trace its roots back to the 1920s.


You might not know the name Frank Pick (1878 – 1941), but millions of you today will recognise and come into contact with the work that he commissioned. He was a pioneer, whose innovative approach to design and branding transformed the visual and architectural identity of the city's transport network, while his leadership and vision laid the groundwork for its modernisation and expansion. Pick was not an artist, a designer or an architect, but an administrator and marketeer with a driving ambition, to make London's transport system accessible, efficient, and user-friendly for the city's growing population. He believed that good design was for everybody, not just the elite.


The transport network in London is not perfect, but with underground and overground lines, links to the national and European rail networks, trams, buses, light railways, bike share, cable cars, river services, taxis and more, London is one of the most connected cities in the world.


It was Pick who saw the value in preserving the history of London Transport (now TfL, Transport For London) and this award winning, interactive museum is a top tourist destination in the capital. 400,000 visitors a year, like me, come to see the expansive collection on show, which really does offer something for everyone.


The brand history

When it was introduced to London in the 19th century, the world's first underground railway was revolutionary and an enormous engineering achievement. Connecting the city, workplaces and the suburbs, through high quality and easily accessible public transport, Londoners and tourists alike have grown accustomed to access to anywhere, anything and anyone.

Frank Pick in 1938 - Image TfL from the London Transport Museum collection

Frank Pick was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK and initially pursued a career in law, though he eventually found his passion in urban planning and transportation. Pick joined the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL), the precursor to the world famous London Underground. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the company's Managing Director in 1928. Under his leadership, the underground expanded its network, improving connectivity and accessibility for Londoners.

“London Transport is or will be a work of art”. (Frank Pick)

Pick championed the development of standardised signage, typography, and graphic design principles, which helped to unify the visual identity of the Underground brand.


In 1913, calligrapher Edward Johnston was commissioned by Pick to create a typeface that would unify the company's brand identity. The Johnston font has been the corporate font of London Transport ever since, making its use one of the world's longest-lasting examples of corporate branding.

Another of Pick's most enduring contributions was the creation of the iconic London Transport logo, known as the "roundel," which features a red circle with a blue bar across the middle. This distinctive symbol, first introduced in 1908, remains synonymous with London's transport network to this day.

Station sign/roundel from the platform at Westminster station 1924-1995 - Image London Transport Museum

The iconic Tube Map, designed by Harry Beck in 1931, was also commissioned by Pick. A graphic design classic, this intuitive, linear, colour-coded diagram, remains the universal template for modern subway maps all over the world.

Henry Beck Tube Map (first edition), 1933. Printed at Waterlow & Sons Ltd., London. Image London Transport Museum

To increase passenger numbers, Pick commissioned prominent artists such as Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and Edward McKnight Kauffer, to create beautifully designed London Underground posters, that showcased graphic design and emerging artistic styles.

“When Frank Pick took charge of publicising the Underground, his pioneering vision for beauty and utility turned the Tube – and later London’s transport network at large – into a place where great art and design could be admired in everyday life,” (Matt Brosnan - curator London Transport Museum, Creative Review 2023)
1924 poster by Horace Taylor - Image London Transport Museum

One of Pick's deepest partnerships was with consulting architect Charles Holden (1875-1960) who designed more than 50 Art Deco/Modernist stations and helped create a design style that was used on everything from bus shelters, to platform lighting, benches and even litter bins.  

Gants Hill Underground station, Central line 1947 by Charles Holden - Image London Transport Museum

Pick’s life was cut short at 62 and a bronze and marble memorial to him was installed at Piccadilly Circus station in 2016.

London Transport (LT) was the brand name under which, from 1933, a series of separate public transport authorities in London operated.

Image - Wikipedia Oliver Green & Sheila Taylor (2003). The moving metropolis: London's transport since 1800. Lawrence King.

When the public transport operation was taken over by Transport for London (TfL) in 2000, the London Transport brand was discontinued and replaced with TfL's own branding, which incorporates many historic features including the 'roundel' symbol and the Johnston font. TfL now run the day-to-day operation of the capital's public transport network and also manage London's roads.

Image - Wikipedia TfL

London Transport Museum Limited (LTM) is a registered charity, established in 2008 with a series of written agreements and support in place between TfL and the museum.

We explore the powerful link between transport and the growth of London, its culture and society since 1800. By sharing this story of innovation, ingenuity, creativity and design, we ignite curiosity about the world around us and how to shape its future.  (London Transport Museum Aims)

The Visitor Centre design

In the 1920s, the London General Omnibus Company decided to preserve two Victorian horse buses and an early motorbus for future generations, and so the seeds for a Museum were sown. In 1924, Frank Pick established the London Transport Collection as a means of preserving the city's transport heritage. This collection initially consisted of historic vehicles, posters, signage, and other artifacts related to London's evolving transport network.


The Museum has had many names and been housed in several locations since opening.

It was housed as part of the Museum of British Transport in a disused tram depot in Clapham, London from 1963 to 1972, and then at Syon Park in Brentford, the London home of the Duke of Northumberland from 1973 to 1977. As the collection grew, so did the need for a dedicated space to showcase the artifacts to the public.

In 1980, the London Transport Museum officially opened its doors to visitors in a former flower market building in Covent Garden. The flower market had closed and moved out in 1974 and many of the historic buildings we see today had yet to be restored.

The museum's mission was to educate and inspire visitors about the history and development of London's transport system, from its humble beginnings to its modern-day innovations.

In 2005 the museum closed for a £20m refurbishment and enlargement program, supported with £9.47m from The Heritage Lottery Fund. The scheme extended the museum space to 31,1934 square feet, and allowed for the addition of new galleries, doubling the number of exhibits on show, a new café, theatre and retail space.

Ralph Applebaum Associates (the prize winning design team behind Museo Lavazza amongst many others) worked with the Museum for 3 years on researching, designing and developing new interactive exhibits and educational facilities. In 2007 the Museum reopened.

Today, the London Transport Museum houses an extensive collection of over 450,000 items, including vintage vehicles such as buses, trams, and trains, as well as one of the world’s largest collections of twentieth century graphic art and design, in the form of posters, photographs, maps, and other memorabilia.

The museum's exhibits cover a wide range of topics, including the development of the Underground, the iconic London red buses, and the role of women in transportation.

There's lots to engage with at the museum. From the trusty stamper trail (on which I was not the only adult participating), to dials to turn, buttons to push, recordings to hear and games to play, all ages can find something to enjoy.

Beyond its physical location, the London Transport Museum engages with the public through outreach programs, educational initiatives, and extensive online resources. Through these efforts, the museum continues to fulfil its mission of preserving London's transport heritage and inspiring future generations to explore the fascinating history of transportation in the city.


The Tour

The museum is split across 3 floors of exhibition space. Guests start their journey on the top floor and this is a self guided experience, so visitors can engage with as much or as little as they like.

Highlights in the first gallery include some of London's first buses, or omnibus, some of which you can actually climb into. Signwriting and old advertising fans like me will find plenty to enjoy.

Heading down a level and visitors can see how the Underground developed and explore how the transport network adapted to connect the growing suburbs with the city.

Heading down to the ground floor and there is a large interactive gallery with moving floor projections, on the designs for London transport, from posters, the famous Roundel, Tube maps and more.

Another gallery showcases London Transport's contribution to keeping London moving through wartime and another gallery focuses on the inventions that became essential for underground train networks, such as the escalator and the lift/elevator.

The ground floor gallery also features some of the most recognisable vehicles from London's past and present, trams, double decker red buses, taxi cabs and more.


The Global Poster Gallery

In October 2023 the Global Poster Gallery opened, where guests can engage with the link between art and the Underground.

The first exhibition, which I was lucky enough to visit, is entitled How to Make a Poster and explores the poster-making design process with over a hundred artworks from Museum’s extensive archive.

A designer's dream, I loved getting up close to the graphic design collaborations from such a diverse group of renowned artists. There were touch screens and earpieces that gave you more information.


Legacies: London Transport’s Caribbean Workforce

When we visited there was an exhibition on the experiences and contributions of first, second and third generation Caribbean people who had worked for London Transport (LT) or still work for Transport for London (TfL). 

Canteen and All Aboard playspace

On the Mezzanine level, younger visitors can burn off some energy in the museum's interactive play space, All Aboard. Little ones can crawl around buses and trains and pretend to be drivers, guards and even station announcers.

The Canteen is the museum's café and has a range of family favourites, though you can also bring your own food, which certainly makes the visit more affordable.

Want to keep the little ones busy, then try one of the most simple yet effective installations in the museum. During our lunch break we watched dozens of children playing on the street crossing display, pressing buttons and waiting to cross, many doing it over and over again. How funny that something we use everyday still has such a draw.


Museum Shop

The retail space is quite large and had a great range of transport themed merchandise. There are items for all ages and the iconic graphic design elements are everywhere. Several collaborations by designers such as Margo Selby Studio and Wallace Sewell are featured. Sewell designed the fabric for the Elizabeth Line trains.


Museum Late

Want even more fun, then adults can access the Museum after hours in a series of Museum Late events on diverse topics, run throughout the year. Not your stuffy guided tour, these events often offer cocktails, games and talks, alongside access to the archives.


The Museum Depot

It is not just in Covent Garden where you can find your fix of transportation history. Acton Depot is London Transport Museum’s storage warehouse and holds open days where members of the public can access even more vehicles, signage and artworks. It offers talks, workshops, a shop, activities for the children and a miniature railway. With over 370,000 items in the archive there, you'll find plenty to while away an afternoon. I know I will be making the trip next time I am in the Capital.


Hidden London Tours

Want to explore more, then why not go behind the scenes at some of London’s busiest stations? Since 2015, the Museum has run unique tours taking over 30,000 guests a year into forgotten underground gems, tunnels where history was made, onto platforms long abandoned, past redundant ticket booths and old signage and posters. The Hidden London tours can be booked online and draw from the extensive archive and collection held at the Museum. And if you cannot visit in person, then they also offer virtual tours via Zoom.


In conclusion

I'm a designer, big kid and not so secret transport geek. A visit during a half term school holiday allowed us to see what this museum can offer everyone, young or old. It was busy. It was loud. It was fun.


This museum is a deft mix of nostalgia, experience, education, inclusivity and inspiration, delivered in a way that skillfully engages visitors of all ages.


There is enough on show without being overwhelming. The brand values the real experience, so while there digital elements, there are multiple things to physically engage with. A program of exhibitions keeps the museum fresh and gives interest to those who can make a return visit.


The volunteers were knowledgeable and friendly. The stamper trail encourages you to move around the galleries. Timed tickets help to manage and reduce queuing, but we can imagine this place gets even busier in the peak holiday times.


This is a museum that really connects and invests in developing lasting brand advocacy. Their educational outreach program is exemplary and the range of after hours and additional tours, spread in and around the Museum, make me want to go back for more.


The transport network in London may have critics. But as the forerunner for the transport networks for all the major world capitals, it's legacy should make Britons proud. The contribution to branding by Frank Pick and those he commissioned, took the mundane and made it iconic and today billions of people all over the world can recognise the TfL brand identity.


How long was the visit?

Visit London recommend at least a 2 hour visit. We were there for just over 3 hours.


How much are tickets?

We paid for our own tickets and this was not part of any advertising.

Admission to the museum is in the form of an annual pass which entitles you to visit the Museum as many times as you like throughout 12 months. Great if you're local. Not so great for those of us hundreds of miles away. You also need to book a timed entry slot.

Adult £24 Local residents £18 17 and under FREE

You can bring your own picnic and they have water bottle refill stations.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the museum for their current opening times, as they can vary.

When we visited the museum was open every day from 10am until 6pm with slightly different times for the café and shop.


Address

London Transport Museum

Covent Garden Piazza

London

WC2E 7BB


 

Where we stayed:

We were in London for a few days and always try to stay at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel, London. We find the location superb, quiet enough to get some sleep and yet close to the action, with great transport links and fabulous shopping, dining, theatre and sightseeing all within a short stroll.

The rooms are not always enormous, especially if you're on one of the top floors, but we stay here nearly every time we are in London and find it ideal for what we need.


Getting here:

We try to fly down to London from Scotland, and prefer to land in London City Airport, so we can use the DLR and underground. With the new Elizabeth line there are even more options. The closest Underground station to the Museum are Covent Garden, a 2 minute walk away, and Charing Cross mainline station, an 8 minute walk away. London is well served for transport options, so it is easy to get to the Museum.


What else is there to see:

London has so many attractions it is hard to suggest just a few, but these were ones we can recommend from this trip.


Covent Garden is a fabulous spot for a bit of shopping, street entertainment and dining.

We are creatures of habit and always head to The Wine Place for a drink or two, while every hour or so visitors can watch different street performers, from jugglers to opera singers, string quartets to jazz bands. You never know what you'll get, but it's a great way to relax.


Covent Garden has more than theatre and dining as an evening activity. For something really different why not try an art class. I found a tutored life drawing class in Covent Garden for £15, run by London Drawing. Even us novices enjoyed trying our hands at something unusual. Picasso we might not be, but it was great for the mind.


We visited the iconic Grade II* listed Battersea Power Station redevelopment and spent several hours shopping and having cocktails whilst marvelling at the amazing architecture. You can take a trip up one of the famous chimneys on the Lift 109 experience, also designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates who designed the London Transport Museum, or just wander around the expansive halls and find joy in all the industrial details.


Over 400,000 visitors a year, like us, have enjoyed a few hours at the Churchill War Rooms, one of the Imperial War Museum's award winning destinations. The underground nerve centre from where the British government directed the Second World War will have history buffs and font fans equally happy.


Founded in 1856 and located just off Trafalgar Square, we enjoyed the National Portrait Gallery, home to the largest collection of portraiture in the world, featuring famous faces who have shaped British history from the great Tudor courts to the present day.


Visited: October 2023

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please drink responsibly. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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