The British Museum
The British Museum is one of the finest attractions in London and its vast collection of artefacts numbering over 8 million is totally free to view and is a great way to spend a day in London observing this unique collection gathered together since its founding in 1753. It is one of the largest and finest collections documenting the story of mankind’s various cultures from around all the continents from its early beginnings to the present time. Approaching six million visitors a year pass through its doors into the magnificent Great Court with its awesome glass and steel roof and reading room with its beautiful blue and gold domed ceiling. From this central focus point visitors disperse in all directions to view the wonders contained within. The various departments cover some of the largest collections of Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Middle Eastern, Etruscan and European to name but a few with some of world’s most famous objects on display such as the Parthenon sculptures and the Rosetta Stone. The permanent collection is enhanced with a number of additional paid exhibitions of specialist items which are obtained from other leading museums from around the world. The museum is committed to improving and enlarging its fast collection for the benefit of future generations and to this end the next phase of its development costing £135 million will make it the largest museum in the world. Read more about the British Museum.
Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) – Over 6.5 million objects to enjoy
The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is one of the world’s greatest museums of design and decorative arts with over 6.5 million objects representing over 5,000 years of human inspiration, creativity and imagination. Founded in 1852 in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea the V&A is one of three museums in the same location the other two being the Science Museum and The Natural History Museum.
It is a large museum covering 12.5 acres with 145 galleries holding unrivalled collections of art from around the world covering cultures of Asia, North America, & Europe dating from ancient times to the present day. In recent years the museum has undergone a major restoration and renewal programme costing £150m. It now exhibits all of the breath-taking collections in more visitor friendly galleries, shops, gardens and visitor facilities.
The vast collections are divided into separate collection departments. Below are some of the must see collections for your next visit to the V&A;
The Asia Department contains over 160,000 objects making it one of the largest such amalgamations of important art for South Asia, China, South East Asia, the Far East, the Himalayan Kingdoms and the Islamic World with 19,000 items from the early Islamic period to the beginning of the 20th century. Four hundred rare objects can be viewed in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art included the gallery centrepiece the “Ardabil carpet” a 10th century “Rock crystal ewer”, “ Iznik” pottery and intricate 14th century glasswork and a 18th century tiled fireplace from Istanbul.
Ceramics and Glass
With over 80,000 objects from around the world the museum’s collection is one of the most comprehensive to be found anywhere and contains exceptional examples of Meissen porcelain, Worcester and Chelsea porcelain. The 18th and 19th century collections of British porcelain are the finest and largest in the world with every important factory being represented in the collection such as Royal Doulton, Minton and Delftware. There are also outstanding pieces of Italian Majolica, Turkish Iznik Pottery and Lustreware from Spain. With 6,000 items of glass covering 4,000 years worth of Egyptian earliest glassware, Ancient Roman, Venetian and Bohemian glass to the more modern collection of Tiffany Art Nouveau glass.
Fashion and Furniture
Fashion and furniture are well represented in the collection with over 14,000 outfits many dating back to the 17th century with medieval vestments and the wedding suit of James II of England of major importance. There are fine examples of 20th century fashion worn by celebrities of the time Ruth Ford and Audrey Hepburn. The furniture collection contains items from 200-395AD to the Middle Ages and through to more the modern era with breath-taking pieces of Adam Morris, Chippendale and Mackintosh.
Other outstanding collections include Wonderful jewellery dating back to ancient Egypt to fine pieces by Cartier, Lalique and the one of the most well-known jewellers Peter Carl Faberge to the museums metalwork collection with decorative ironwork, bronze, pewter, with 10,000 items of silverware and gold much of it covering Christian faiths. There is also an outstanding collection of paintings and miniatures with many important artists represented such as Raphael, Pietro Perugino and Andrés Marzal De Sax.
The Highlight of any visit to the V&A is the exhibition of European post-classical sculpture dating from approximately 400AD to the early 20th century with over 20,000 items. It is a wonderful experience roaming through the gallery seeing fine sculptures through various periods including fine Byzantine, Baroque, and Renaissance through to Neoclassical to Art Nouveau. The sculptures are carved and cast from various materials such as alabaster, terracotta, marble, ivory, wood, gesso, bronze and lead. The collection of Italian sculpture from the medieval, Renaissance and Neoclassical periods are only bettered in Italy itself with some very important pieces by Bartolomeo Bon, Giovanni Pisano, Andrea Riccio and Pier Jacopo to name but a few.
The Science Museum – 3 million visitors a year can’t be wrong
Located on Exhibition Road in South Kensington is The Science Museum, one of three great museums in the area the other two being The Natural History Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum. It is one of the major tourist attractions in the capital attracting close to 3 million visitors a year who come to see some of its wonderful collections gathered since it first opened in 1857. It is the most successful and popular science museum in Europe with over 300,000 items to its vast collection with many of them on permanent display.
There are numerous galleries including the interactive Launchpad gallery recently redesigned which prove extremely popular with visitors bringing to life contemporary science and scientific key principles. A recent IMAX 3D Cinema is a great addition to the museum facilities showing unrivalled nature and science documentaries most of them in stunning 3D. Visitors can enjoy the real life experiences of the museums superb 3D and 4D flight simulators giving you the feeling of flying with the Red Arrows in close formation or even blasting off on an Apollo space mission. Other modern technologies can be seen in the Welcome Wing dedicated to the workings of digital technology and Bioscience.
With all the modern exhibitions it’s easy to forget that the museum is packed full of early scientific breakthroughs and these can be seen in the East Hall, a vast gallery three floors tall filled with steam engines including the oldest surviving beam engine by James Watt. The exhibitions here show the development of the British industrial revolution in all its glory. Other interesting displays include “Exploring Space” a gallery filled with exciting exhibits such as rockets narrating the story of space exploration and the technological benefits for mankind.
Not to be missed is the “Modern World Gallery” with some of the museums most iconic and valued objects including an Apollo spacecraft and Stephenson’s Rocket displayed in an imaginative exhibition chronicling mankind’s greatest technological achievements. If you are interested in the history of flight then there is plenty to see on the third floor with amazing displays of full sized aeroplanes including Hurricane and Spitfire fighter planes, various aero-engines including the first jet engine and a cross section of the popular Boeing 747.
As well as the permanent exhibitions which are free to the public there are additional touring exhibitions for visitors to enjoy, so no matter how many times you visit there is always something new and exciting to experience.
The National Portrait Gallery – Faces of history
The National Portrait Gallery was the first such museum in the world dedicated to portraits when it opened its door back in 1856, the gallery moved many times in its early years before finally settling in its present location. The gallery houses the greatest and largest collections of faces and personalities from the late Middle Ages through to present times. Over the years the museum has grown and grown requiring two expansions to accommodate the ever increasing collection of some of the great faces that have shaped British history with Queens, Kings, Film Stars and Musicians. The first expansion in 1933 was funded by Lord Duveen with the second expansion opening in 2000 funded by the Heritage Lottery and Sir Christopher Ondaatje.
It is an imposing building with decorated stone blocks of important portrait artists, historians and biographical writers on the exterior of two of the original buildings from 1896. On entering the gallery you will be greeted by three busts of the people chiefly responsible for the founding of the national Portrait Gallery Philip Henry Stanhope, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington.
The collection includes all forms of media including sculpture, caricatures, video, and photography and of course paintings. The collections of portraits are based on the importance of the sitter and not necessarily of the importance of the artist. Some portraits are not exceptional but are never the less are extremely historically important, some of the self-portraits by British artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Hogarth are of particular note.
The galleries are divided into different periods of history such as the “Tudor Galleries” with an impressive collection of some of the galleries oldest portraits with some of the period’s major characters such as William Shakespeare, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Located next to the Tudor Galleries on the second floor is the 17th and 18th Centuries Galleries full of exciting portraits, other important galleries are the Weldon, Victorian and Balcony Galleries.
The permanent displays are complimented by a variety of exhibitions and free events which ensure something new and exciting for the returning visitors to see and enjoy. After perusing the fabulous collection why not finish your visit in the Portrait restaurant with its stunning vistas of Whitehall, the London Eye and Nelson’s Column.
The Museum of London Docklands – A surprisingly popular tourist destination
Located on the Isle of Dogs only a short stroll from Canary Wharf is The Museum of London Docklands, it is funded jointly by the Greater London Authority and the City of London Corporation. The museum shows and explains the long history of the Docklands and the River Thames and its surrounding area, it is set in a group of outstanding Grade I Listed sugar warehouse buildings from the early 19th century constructed on the West India Docks.
Opened in 2003 the museum has proved very popular with tourists from around the world as well as local Londoners keen to see a glimpse into the docklands past and colourful history. There are a wealth of ancient objects from roman times to the more recent past, all displayed magnificently in 12 state of the art galleries. There’s also a 19th century recreation of London’s association with the slave trade known as “Sailortown” and a children’s gallery distributed over two floors known as “Mudlarks”.
The heart of the museum’s collection is the archives from the Port of London Authority, a lecture theatre, meeting rooms and the Sainsbury Study Centre. The museum uses the latest presentational methods including videos by Time Team favourite Tony Robinson and presentational talks by several dock workers. Various galleries explore the long history of the river and port from early Roman times in AD43 through to the later historically important Norman and Medieval periods. On display is a stunning large scale model of Old London Bridge, the first such structure over the River Thames with one side decked out with buildings from the mid-15th century. Cleverly hidden from the visitors view is the bridge in its Tudor splendour which only reveals itself when entering the next gallery.
In the London, Sugar & Slavery gallery there is a thought provoking permanent exhibition that takes the lid off London’s shameful involvement in the transatlantic slavery trade. In the historic sugar warehouse you will learn about the plethora of goods that flooded into the docks from around the world including sugar, tobacco, leather, paper, timber, spirits, furs, oriental carpets, tea, coffee and so much more. London’s commercial activity increased greatly in the first half of the 19th century with the huge docks complex being built. All of these major changes are examined in the galleries as well as London’s whaling trade which once was the largest in the world, on display are selections of harpoons and a boiling pot for extracting oil from whale blubber.
To complement a visit to the museum, stopover at the Museum of London Docklands shop which specialises in mementoes about the people who worked here, toys postcodes, prints, books, stationary and other gifts are readily available or take a well-earned break in the museum cafe.