Dirk Bennett

Q&A with Dirk Bennett

Eleanor Mills, 05.09.2018
Tower Bridge has been going through a transformation on the inside
Tower Bridge, in London, is a popular attraction for tourists and London residents alike, but though its silhouette has stayed the same, its been going through a transformation on the inside.

With new interpretation and added glass walkways, the famous bascule bridge, which first opened in 1892, is being given a much-needed facelift.

Museums Journal talks to Dirk Bennett, the exhibition development manager of Tower Bridge and the Monument, to find out about the project.

When did the regeneration begin?
It started with the appointment of the new head of Tower Bridge, Chris Earlie, and the installation of a new glass floor on the upper walkways, which has been a massive draw for visitors. When I was appointed in 2015 to redevelop the exhibitions, the first thing I did was put together an interpretive strategy in collaboration with the relevant teams on the bridge – operative, technical, visitor services, marketing, learning.

What’s the focus of the bridge’s new interpretation?
One of our objectives was to tell our history and stories and anecdotes through the people involved in constructing and working on the bridge, and in this way connecting to our visitors. But when I first started I found that, even though this is a comparably recent building and run by a public body, we don’t have the complete records and quite a bit, in particular staff records, has been lost. We knew about the lead architects and engineers, and the “bridge masters”, who have looked after the management and operation of the bridge since its first opening.

We have lots of historic photographs of the construction with hundreds of workers in them and over the past few years we have put together, little by little, the names and roles and dates of our historic staff. We carried out our own research, commissioned research, collated information from visitors and invited feedback (and still do – you can email us at people@towerbridge.org.uk). Where possible, we include them in our displays, literature and guided tours we offer. The trail of bronze plaques with the names of workers on the footpath that links to the Engine Rooms is one of the outcomes of this research.

What did Phase One entail?
We started with the Engine Rooms, which were completed in late spring 2017. This is where the steam power was created, which helped lift the bascules until the mid-1970s – it’s now done with electrics.

The previous interpretation was heavy text-based panels with technical illustrations, which were not suitable for our main audiences. We have replaced them with animations illustrating the process, and introduced the previously-missing human element about the people who operated and maintained the machinery. Visitors are now presented with a mix of animations, film, oral history, set-dressing and a very popular Bridge Lift game. The engine rooms section is then book-ended by a model that summarises the mechanics and processes involved at Tower Bridge.

Phase One also involved installing a trail of plaques that visitors can see as they walk over the bridge, which is comprised of a selection of names of previous bridge staff over the years: from construction workers, steam crane drivers and rivet boys, to oilers and bridge drivers.

In May, Phase Two was completed – what did this involve?
The bridge’s two towers tell one story each: its design and construction in the north tower, and its operation and maintenance in the south tower. Both contain a vertical timeline, with key events, characters and incidents earmarked. And both, on their second levels, have a star exhibit. In the north it is the previously unknown story of the divers who excavated the bridge’s foundations, complete with a Victorian diving suit and newly discovered historic photographs taken on site. In the south tower, the key item is the spectacular floor and wall displays that use the historic plans and designs.

What will Phase Three entail?
We are currently planning Phase Three, which will be the exhibition in the walkways between the two towers (above the bascule bridge that lifts at road level), which will be the link between the interpretation that we have developed in the past two phases. We intend to go out to tender for this in spring 2019 and develop the new displays over the financial year 2019-2020.

What are you most looking forward to about completing the project?
To see it all come together, and see a coherent, consistent, exciting and beautiful experience in place. But also – this is something I loved previously – to see the reaction of the families whose dads, uncles or great grandfathers worked here. There is still so much pride of somehow being linked to this monument that goes well beyond any ordinary workplace.