Answers from Our Experts (8)
I love the Victoria and Albert Museum. I think the glass room at the V&A is probably one of the most spectacular rooms in museums, as well as the jewelry room — that’s fantastic.
Tate Modern and Tate Britain are great, as is the V&A and the National Gallery.
I like the history museum a lot because you can go through the history of the world. And, also, I like the National Portrait Gallery because I love photography. I like to switch off sometimes and go see some pictures as inspiration.
From the British Museum to the Victoria and Albert, London is home to some of the most renowned exhibitions on earth. But aside from the major tourist draws, London also boasts a wealth of lesser-known gems – in fact, literally hundreds of the things. Here are three particularly worth seeking out.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
It has been called the greatest house museum in the world, and that’s accurate on two counts – it’s both a great house and a great museum. The cherished residence and pet design project of the eponymous 19th century architect, it was created by demolishing three terraced properties and reforming them into one design masterpiece. And within this home is Soane’s own fine collection of curios from across the globe. With highlights including the sarcophagus of an Egyptian pharaoh, Roman bronzes from Pompeii to a series of Hogarth paintings, the contents wouldn’t look out of place in most national collections.
Magic Circle Museum
Much like the Magic Circle itself, this isn’t an easy museum to get into – you have to call to arrange a visit in advance – but it rewards the extra effort. With a range of fascinating magical artifacts which include props used in the very first ‘sawing a lady in half’ illusion and rare sound recordings of Harry Houdini, as well as posters, photographs and try-it-yourself magic tricks, it offers a real insight into the world of conjuring.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum
As the title suggests, this is a museum of surgical history; home to one of the oldest surviving operating theatres in the world from a time before an anesthetics and antiseptics. Located, rather unusually, high up in the attic of a church, there are many displays focusing on strange medieval medical practices, from instruments for bleeding and trepanning to suggested herbal remedies.
London has a great crop of museums for science-minded visitors.
The Science Museum itself is one of the headline grabbers, part of the museum complex built in South Kensington during Victorian times. The collection is vast (too much to see in one visit), and definitely up-to-date: at Google’s Chrome Web Lab exhibits run simultaneously in a futuristic lab and online. The museum shop is one of London's best spots for buying an affordable, science-related gift.
The Hunterian Museum, based inside London's Royal College of Surgeons, has been collecting medical and anatomical curios for 200 years – 2013 is bicentenary year, with a bunch of events and free lectures planned for later in the year. The collection is occasionally grisly (lots of specimens in glass jars), but always fascinating and well curated, and includes the skeleton of Jonathan Wild, a “thief-taker” turned organized criminal who was hanged for his crimes in 1725.
At the Wellcome Collection, exhibits focus around medicine and its role in shaping the way we live. Its eclectic temporary exhibitions are usually top-quality, too; until Febraury 24, 2013, “Death: a self-portrait” uses a variety of media to examine public attitudes to dying.
Any article on London museums has to begin with the big four: the British Museum (art and history), Natural History Museum, Science Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum (art, fashion, crafts and design). These powerhouse institutions all offer free admission to their permanent collections (as well as running regular ticketed exhibitions), meaning that you can pop in for repeat visits to experience their treasures in your own sweet time.
But just as important as the big beasts of the London museum ecosystem are the smaller, more niche institutions on offer. Sir John Soane's Museum is the private collection of the great architect and parliamentarian, housed in the residence he built between 1792 and 1824. It's an eclectic blend of art, architecture and antiquities and is at its best on the monthly candle-lit evening openings (pictured above).
The Wellcome Collection also owes its existence to the curiosity and tenacity of a respected 19th-century gentleman: Sir Henry Wellcome's passion for medicine led him to collect over a million objects. A selection of these remarkable artefacts are on permanent display, and there are fantastic temporary exhibitions too, exploring the relationship between science, medicine, life and art.
And finally, the London Transport Museum offers a unique route into London's past and present through the story of its public transport network. This may sound like a dry subject, but it's nothing of the kind, from the remarkable engineering project that brought the Tube into being 150 years ago, to the dramatic events of wartime London to the Underground as design innovator.
Choosing a museum to suit the whole family can be a tricky task indeed. Art-heavy ones are likely to lead to cries of boredom from the littlest ones, likewise, too much all-flashing, all-dancing ‘child-friendly fun’ can test the patience of the older members. For all round, truly family-friendly museums, add one of these to the schedule.
For a museum experience that’ll keep the little ones engaged and happy for hours, head to the free to enter Science Museum where the past meets the future in an array of gigantic to minute exhibits, visual displays and interactive areas. For the tricky teens, try Madame Tussauds wax museum where they can get up close and photographed with their favorite Hollywood film stars, musicians and bands, such as the new addition, One Direction (albeit very realistic wax work versions, rather than the real thing…). For big kids, with a keen interest in toys from days gone by, Pollock’s Toy Museum has a wonderful collection of board games, doll’s houses, folk toys from around the world and English tin toys; plus a shop to pick up some souvenirs for home.
London is awash with museums. From national treasures to internationally renowned collections, and from quirky small galleries to vast world-famous museums, there is truly something for everyone.
For art, head to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square which houses the national collection of Western European painting from the 13th to the 19th centuries, or the Tate Modern at Bankside on the river Thames for the country's leading modern art collection.
Anyone interested in the natural world should not miss the Natural History Museum in South Kensington (where kids will love the dinosaur galleries) while science fans won't want to skip the Science Museum next door, which is packed with interactive exhibits. The V&A, also located here, is the world's greatest museum of art and design, while the British Museum in Bloomsbury is unrivalled for its collection of international artefacts, which includes the controversial Elgin marbles.
Smaller museums worth a visit include the Charles Dickins museum, which is the only surviving London house in which Dickens lived, the Churchill Museum at the Cabinet War Rooms, the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, which pays homage to the importance packaging and advertising, and the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green which is part of the V&A and houses the V&A's national collection of childhood related objects, including dolls' houses and teddy bears.
Finally, don't miss the National Portrait Gallery, back on Trafalgar Square, behind the National Gallery, where you can see portraits of famous Brits past and present including, of course, plenty of the royal family.