One of the classes I took in London was a museums studies class, so I got to discover quite a few places that I might not have known about otherwise. In addition to learning about their history, we also talked a little bit about the role of museums today and how modern conventions such as gift shops and cafes change the museum-goers experience. Overall, it was a great experience, and the best part? Most of the major museums in London are free!
So, without further ado, here is my list of favorite museums in London:
1. The V&A
The Victoria and Albert Museum is the world's largest museum of decorative arts and design. In addition to painting and sculpture, it has rooms for furniture, tapestry, dress, iron works, glass, and metalworks from all over the world. It's a huge, stately complex built in the 1850s, and I could definitely have spent several days here.
2. The Petrie Museum
This little gem turned out to be one of my favorite museums we visited, and it also happens to be the smallest. Tucked away on the second floor of an unassuming brick building on the University College London campus, this museum houses the archeological collection of Flinders Petrie, a British archeologist who excavated thousands of Egyptian artifacts during the 1880s. I've seen quite a few of Egyptian exhibits, but none have captivated me much as this. I've always been able to appreciate Egyptian art to a certain extent, but it's hard to make the leap from admiring the objects of ancient civilizations to actually imagining them as belonging to living, breathing human beings. The museum is only a couple of rooms, but it is packed with rows of glass cases that are full of everyday objects Egyptians would have used, from pottery to glass beads (I had no idea the Egyptians worked with glass!). The whole experience felt a little more like walking through a yard sale than a museum, and the result is a museum experience that feels profoundly intimate and personal.
3. The National Gallery
Who can visit London without seeing The National Gallery? It's basically a staple. This is a place you could get lost in. Think giant, gilded frames, walls hung with silk, and maze after maze of galleries. My favorite thing about it is that a lot of the paintings are hung on traditional colored walls instead of the modern white ones, so it feels both historic and decadent.
4. The Wellcome Collection
This one totally came out of nowhere as one my favorite places in London. We visited this museum during our "medical museums" unit, which meant we'd just spend a week looking at specimens in jars and pondering 18th century surgery.*shudder* This museum, however, was different. It's basically a cross between a modern art museum and a medical museum. Different artists are commissioned to do work on a certain theme related to health or the human body. While we were there there was an amazing exhibit on consciousness that had a room that used audio and video to explore the sensation of sleep paralysis, and a group of drawings meant to showcase how autistic children see the world differently.
5. The V&A Museum of Childhood
Okay, so this is a branch of the the V&A but it's worth mentioning on its own. This is not to be confused with your typical children's museum. Instead, this museum looks at the experience of childhood throughout history, as well as showcasing toys from around the world. While we were there they had an exhibit about Britain's children migrants, who were sent to Canada and Australia under the pretense that they would have a better life, and often never saw their families again. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worth learning about.
|"The Sarcophagus of Set I in Sir John Soane's Museum", Illustrated London News, 1864|
7. Sir John Soane's Museum
This is an interesting one. Sir John Soane was a neoclassical architect whose life work consisted of collecting and displaying classical sculpture and architectural elements. He asked that his house be preserved as a museum from the time of his death, so stepping inside is like stepping into the past. After you walk through the parlor and breakfast room you come to an amazing three story atrium covered in Greek and Roman busts, architectural fragments, and even an Egyptian sarcophagus.
8. The Natural History Museum
This museum feels most closely related to the museums we have in the US. There are modern aspects to it, like a high tech dinosaur exhibit targeted at kids, and some more traditional exhibits on animals and biology. The real reason you should go though is to stand for a moment in the huge atrium at its center, which feels like it could be right out of Hogwarts.
|Pitt Rivers Museum|
9. Bonus! Oxford University Museum of Natural History + The Pitt Rivers Museum
If you want to make a day trip to Oxford, don't leave without visiting the Natural History Museum. This is classic natural history at its best, complete with skeletons and taxidermy (I have a weird fascination with taxidermy, okay?), plus it's super informative. Be absolutely sure you don't miss the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is in the same building. The Pitt Rivers museum is an archeological/anthropological museum which groups objects by type rather than culture or geographic region. The result is an insane grouping of objects from all over the world, where you can make comparisons between how different cultures solved the same problems.
|Playing cards through the ages (Pitt Rivers)|
|Keys through the ages (Pit Rivers)|
10. Extra Bonus! Kew Gardens
But this is a garden, not a museum, you say! Well, not exactly. Built in the mid 1800s, the two oldest greenhouses in Kew Gardens functioned as a kind of botanical museum, showcasing plants from all over the world (mainly colonies of the British empire). Even the tulips that were blooming in front of the greenhouses were imports from the Netherlands. There is also a fantastic exhibit of botanical paintings that made me want to break out the watercolors.
ps. I'm hoping to do another post like this all about London gardens, so stay tuned!