The Tower of Babel, 2015

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A project by the artist at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Standing six metres high, The Tower of Babel was made up of 3000 miniature bone china buildings, each depicting a real London shop.

The Tower of Babel is a richly-layered work that tells an array of stories about our capital city, our society and economy, and ourselves as consumers. Derelict shops appeared at the bottom of the tower, while London’s exclusive boutiques and galleries featured at the summit. Each shop was a unique, signed artwork and each was offered for sale. Prices of the shops rose in relation to their position on the tower, prompting people to confront where they fitted into London’s hierarchy of consumption, through financial necessity or materialistic desire.


“This is London in all its retail glory, our city in the beginning of the 21st century and I’m asking, how does it make you feel?”

Barnaby Barford

The Tower of Babel stands as a monument to the pastime of shopping, perhaps the principle leisure pursuit of contemporary British society. Playfully, Barford likened our efforts to find fulfilment through retail to the biblical Tower of Babel’s attempt to reach heaven. His seemingly precarious Tower poses questions about the nature of our society and the fragility of economy, exposing the divide between rich and poor.

Barford’s Tower is also a survey of the streets of early 21st century London. It reminds us not to take for granted how our city actually looks, and how it constantly changes. It reflects, often delightfully, how shop design and graphics impact upon our surroundings and how we feel about certain areas. Perhaps contrary to expectations, it captures an extraordinary diversity in London’s retailers, cataloguing a plethora of independent shops that cater to the needs of their communities. In a direct reversal to the Bible’s Babel – the architects of which were scattered by God and their languages confused – we see shop owners, entrepreneurs and big brands from all over the world, speaking every language under the sun, together, in the city of London, building a tower of commerce.

Text by Alun Graves and Barnaby Barford, 2015.

The Tower of Babel had a big impact in the media, gaining coverage in all the major national newspapers and the BBC. It also encouraged many people that had never visited the museum to explore the collection.

The Tower was a ground-breaking collaboration between curatorial, commercial and digital media teams of the museum.

A custom online platform was developed archiving the shops. It also acted as a huge bespoke e-commerce website. This online element was as important as The Tower of Babel itself, and given the transient nature of the installation, the website acts as a legacy for the project and an ongoing resource.

To make The Tower, Barford cycled over 1000 miles during the making of The Tower, visiting every postcode in London and photographing well over 6000 shops in the process. These photographs were used to produce the ceramic transfers that have been fired onto the shops, making each shop a unique work of art in its own right.

Slide through the image gallery below for a little sneak peek into the production process.