Something I’ll never tire of rubbing in the faces of my mainland counterparts is the plenitude of world-class museums in London that are completely free to browse. I briefly mentioned the subject in last year’s London A-Z, but it might have seemed too good to be true. It wasn’t.
England may have sold its National Health Service and education system along with any shred of integrity it hid behind, but the museums remain open and free…for now.
Here I’ll just cover some of the largest and most popular, but one day I might also follow up with a post dedicated to hidden gems and underrated novelties.
One of the world’s most famous, the British Museum is too vast to condense into one paragraph. An endless array of specimens awaits you from all ends of time and space. Chinese Jade, Michelangelo’s drawings and ancient Egyptian statues are random representations of literally millions of artefacts in the collection. The museum also caters very successfully to families and children, and constantly hosts special exhibitions to keep its attraction fresh.
The National Gallery displays some of history’s most treasured works of art. This museum also offers the chance to help you learn about art through talks, online guides and even iPhone applications. Family activities are held every Sunday for free, and events such as musical concerts and visiting exhibitions can also be enjoyed here, in addition to lectures, courses and workshops.
Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum holds a bewildering array of artefacts from the natural world, ranging from the Central Hall’s complete Diplodocus skeleton to a live wildlife garden adjacent to the museum’s west lawn. There is an amazing provision for school groups and families, with loads of special permanent and temporary exhibitions, including the amazing Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.
National Portrait Gallery
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, the National Portrait Gallery displays historical and modern portraiture, primarily in the form of paintings and photography. As with all the greats, this gallery also hosts visiting exhibitions and runs a programme of complementary events – this year including features on the London Olympics, vulnerable children, and identity in the Middle East. Special provision is made for schools and educational groups, and the gallery also hosts competitions such as the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Another incredible museum located just south of Hyde Park, the Victoria and Albert Museum presents a wide array of exhibits, along with educational resources, interactive projects, and touring exhibitions. The V&A calls itself the world’s greatest museum of art and design, which might sound grand but it’s not hard to see why. It hosts family activities, private tours, study courses, workshops, and also has a programme of evening events.
Next door to the Natural History Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum presents a combined collection of 2D and 3D exhibitions, interactive displays, and an IMAX cinema. The museum also hosts science shows, experiments, talks and discussions, and fun events such as a silent disco. Special temporary exhibitions also feature frequently in the museum’s calendar.
Tate Britain calls itself the home of British art from 1500 to the present day. And why not – it holds a massive collection of artwork in various media that is constantly updated, along with a series of parallel guest exhibitions and an extensive programme of events. British art is very much alive and kicking at Tate Britain – the gallery hosts discussions, symposia, courses, films, and performances including music and dance.
National Maritime Museum
Situated in Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum presents 500 years of British maritime exploits. Exhibitions cover topics such trading in Asia, struggles in the Atlantic, and expeditions in the Arctic. Besides dynamic installations, the museum also hosts photography competitions and art exhibitions. There are thousands of objects on display, such as the uniform in which Admiral Horatio Nelson was shot at the Battle of Trafalgar. In addition to all this, the tea clipper Cutty Sark, sitting in dry dock in Greenwich, will also be open once more this spring.
Imperial War Museum
Personally I’m not the biggest fan of war, but perhaps the overriding message of the Imperial War Museum is that sometimes the worst situations can bring out the best in people. Imperial War Museum London is linked to HMS Belfast on the River Thames and the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, as well as sites in Cambridgeshire and Manchester. The Museums present exhibitions on wartime experience from the First World War to the present day. The artefacts on display are authentic and thought-provoking.
A big fan of literature, I count the British Library as an essential addition to this list, but of course you can find much more here than half-read copies of Jane Eyre. Aside from collaborating on the production of television and web-based content, the British Library hosts a Spring Festival Market, a great schedule of workshops and courses, a business and IP centre, and guest exhibitions of fine art prints through the year.
Home of the famous Christmas Lectures, the Royal Institution has its own YouTube channel where it shows entertaining and fascinating scientific demonstrations. A vast collection of scientific displays can be seen over several floors in the Faraday Museum, whilst younger visitors can explore on a practical level in the Young Scientist Centre. The RI has a science and maths club for finance professionals and also runs a programme of live scientific demonstrations.
Understandably not everybody’s cup of tea, modern art certainly has its dynamic, challenging and reflective moments. With a collection to rival New York’s MoMA and Barcelona’s MACBA, Tate Modern offers interactive displays, mobile phone applications, sketching sessions, a specially-designed schools programme, activities and itineraries for family visits, and also has a large programme of events. Film, music, workshops, corporate events and visiting exhibitions can all be enjoyed here.
Museum of London
It’s no big surprise to hear me say that London is a complex and fascinating place, so it stands to reason that the Museum of London has a great deal of material to present. Nine permanent free galleries show the historical development of the city, from the time before London existed, up to the present day metropolis. The events programme includes lectures, walks, archaeological sessions and a lot of historical sociological insight. There are also art exhibitions and this year a special exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
Sir John Soane can no longer welcome you with a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit – he died in 1837 – but you can still take the liberty to browse his impressive collection of antiquities and artwork. The house itself was designed by Soane and acts as a major exhibit, whilst you can also find sculptures, paintings and antiques amongst the treasures within. The museum hosts temporary exhibitions and runs an impressive educational programme. As a special treat, the museum is lit by candles on the first Tuesday evening of each month.
The Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London features the private collection of Victorian philanthropist Frederick John Horniman. The museum exhibits a range of collections including items of anthropological interest, musical instruments, and a natural history section. There is also an aquarium and an extensive garden that holds plants for medicine, dye, food and much more. Many of the exhibits you can handle personally, and the museum offers a fantastic range of educational and creative sessions for youngsters and families.
Another inspiring and multi-faceted organisation, the Wellcome Collection takes an inquisitive approach to the connection between scientific phenomena and its application in everyday life. Permanent exhibitions include one dedicated to Henry Wellcome himself, featuring cultural and scientific artefacts from his vast personal collection. The museum hosts guest exhibitions, such as the poignant photographic collection Life Before Death. Regular events, including performances, scientific demonstrations, and participatory experiences, also feature.
To be honest, it always makes me retch when people try to tell me how fantastic it is to live in London. However, researching this post has given me some pause for reconsideration. Either way, I’m definitely going to check out the Scott exhibition at the Natural History Museum this year. I might even publish a blogpost about it when I return.
If you have a goosey gander at any of these museums this year, and if you dig it, feel free to drop us a comment and let us know what you loved; you could even link to some photos if you take any. Let’s make sure we enjoy the opportunity while we still have it.
(1) http://www.flickr.com/photos/sciencemuseum/ (2) http://www.flickr.com/photos/4colourprogress/ (3) http://www.flickr.com/photos/gawelfr/ (4) http://www.flickr.com/photos/martin2012/ (5) http://www.flickr.com/photos/massimo_riserbo/ (6) http://www.flickr.com/photos/kittivanilli/ (7) http://www.flickr.com/photos/guvnah/ (8) http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbury/ (9) http://www.flickr.com/photos/grandhi/ (10) http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevharb/ (11) http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevecadman/ (12) http://www.flickr.com/photos/curns/ (13) http://www.flickr.com/photos/iandolphin/ (14) http://www.flickr.com/photos/40139809@N00/ (15) http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexlomas/ (16) http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyesuta/