Water and Locks

A major exhibition renewal project


Our Water and Locks exhibition was the museum's major project of 2010 and was officially opened by H.R.H. The Princess Royal on 27th October 2010. This page now tells you something about the background to the exhibition and the work that went into creating it.

Overview of water and locks panels 1 and 2HRH The princess Royal cuts the ribbon to open the exhibition 27th October 2010Model lock. A boy works the model

What is it about?

Water and Locks is about the engineering of canals and rivers that makes rivers navigable, and canals possible. It compares and contrasts river and canal navigations, explain how water supply is crucial to the design of canals, and demonstrates that simple and time-served structure, the lock, and its operation. It also covers the role of lock-keepers and the human interest aspects of locks.

What is in it?

Large graphic panels cover four themes:

There is a real paddle post, together with an interactive paddle that demonstrates how it works. Real Regent's Canal lock paddles are displayed on the wall. In addition a flip-book covers a range of more detailed topics and topics of more interest to enthusiasts. Centre-piece of the exhibition is a model lock.

The Model lock

Over several years we have looked at the experiences of other UK museums with model locks. There are fewer examples of success than of failure. A number of models have had to be taken out of service after a few years. These are some of the problems that can arise with lock models:

A model lock installed at the excellent Banbury Museum is thought to be the most successful in the UK, having lasted some years without major repairs having been needed. It is mechanical in operation, with simulated water. It is not finely detailed but has been engineered to be robust and reliable. Our model was inspired by this one and built for us by Robert Farrow Workshops, who also built the Banbury lock. Our lock is modelled on a wide lock as found in London, rather than a narrow lock as found on the Oxford Canal at Banbury.

The Graphic Design

We worked with local company 19-77 Design who have been responsible for several impressive museum exhibitions in the London area and elsewhere. Their role was design the exhibition, and the panels in particular, in conjunction with the museum and the lock model makers.

There were many revisions as we experimented with design ideas and moved towards the final result. The Style was intended to build on but match the museum's existing house style. It all had to be carefully planned so that it would fit the space exactly, fit the interactives, leave a gap for the cleaner's mop underneath, and tell our story in spectacular style.

Once the design and themes of each section were completed we wrote the text in-house. London Canal Museum texts are designed to be accessible. We use a three-level approach:

  1. Level 1 should be easy for everyone to understand including children and those with a learning disability, and those who do not read English as their first language.
  2. Level 2 is for the great majority of visitors. It should be easy for the average person to understand but assumes reasonable literacy and command of English.
  3. Level 3 is, in this case, the flip-book, where we feel free to use more complicated language and go into detail. This is aimed at those wanting a more in-depth knowledge and enthusiasts.


We commissioned a lighting designer to design new lighting for Water and Locks along with a separate lighting project on the ground floor that was completed at the same time. All the lighting is LED lighting, keeping energy consumption to a minimum. Some of the lights are not required in daylight conditions and are only switched on after dark. The switch wiring was designed to facilitate this. There are wall-washer lights on the two wall panels and spotlights for the others.

The lighting was installed in advance of the exhibition. This was because it was commissioned along with the ground floor project and it was easier to install both in the same week. We therefore had excellent lighting fo blank walls for a short while!

Practical Work

Before any installations we ran a small project to get the area redecorated and some repairs made to the windows in the area concerned. We had various electrical work carried out to move things that would otherwise have been in the way of the exhibition and we moved our emergency stair carrier unit, that can be used for emergency evacuation of wheelchair users, to a position on the south wall.

Our carpenter made a lectern for the flip-book, a new housing for the boundary marker from the Brent Reservoir, and later, a panel to hold the exhibition title. Most of this carpentry work was done well in advance, along with some repositioning of the lock paddles that hang under the windows.

The panels were installed first, so that the interactives could be positioned up against them. The paddle post position had to be considered in the light of the possible presence of rolled steel joists in the floor, as it weighs a great deal and had to be securely bolted down.

The interactives were installed soon after the panels. In the last week before the official opening we fitted the sign-board holder, and completed the design and installation of the flip-book sheets. The sheets were printed for us and encapsulated by a graphics services company but we had to fit the brass eyelets to them to enable them to fit. We have a special press for this, an invaluable tool that only gets used occasionally but that is essential to the task! The eyelets are more commonly used on sails for sailing boats. A separate set of the flip-sheets on A4 paper was produced and placed in a book on a chain, to be more comfortably read by wheelchair users.

Picture Gathering

Right from the early stages of planning it was realised that we needed to find the right pictures to tell the story that we wanted to tell, and that these were not easily available. Over two years of preparations, work took place to source pictures to convey the message required.

The River Flows Beaneath

Canal lock abuts aqueduct with river beneath, trees around

Climbing the Hill at Hanwell

Three locks in succession climb hill

The exhibition also includes archival documents. Leonardo Da Vinci is credited with the idea of the mitre gate, and we licenced an image of his drawing from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan for 25 years after lengthy negotiations. With less difficulty the Waterways trust archives in Gloucester had an excellent letter from the engineer John Rennie, in which he set out eight different ways in which water could be supplied to a canal around north London. The letter illustrates how difficult water supply could be. Unfortunately space did not allow us to reproduce the whole letter.

Taking Pictures

The mast photography day was in 2009, with photographs taken close by Denham Deep Lock and at Hanwell Locks. Access to the site was very difficult and involved carrying equipment from the nearest road access point, itself a long drive on a woodland track.

Mast photography - yellow tripod in clearing in woods

In Search of Leonardo

We negotiated with the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and eventually a 25 year agereement was made for the showing of the Leonardo Da Vinci drawing. This has not been exhibited before in the UK, so far as we know. The drawing is a seminal contribution to canal navigation because it shows the design of the mitre gate, a concept at least documented by Leonardo Da Vinci and possibly invented by him.

From the Air

The Brent Reservoir is the largest canal water supply construction in London but we did not have adequate pictures of it. We used an aerial photography company to take a series of photographs from a small aeroplane. The result was a spectacular set of photographs showing overviews and also close-up pictures of the dam, the siphons, and the outlet to the feeder that used to supply the canal.

Brent Reservoir from the air, in the distance

Under Construction

The model lock was built at Teddington in London, along with the model of a paddle that illustrates how a rachet and pinion mechanism lowers and raises a paddle.

Model Lock under construction