London Museums - A Small Selection

When I looked at the date the other day and realized I left one year ago, I realized that if I don't dedicate a little bit of time each week to this blog, I'll never finish this trip, much less any future trips I have planned!  SO- getting back to London, which I've established is a fantastic city, I wanted to touch on some of the amazing museums they have on offer.  

First, a caveat- on this particular trip, I was not focused on doing museums, and in fact decided to re-visit the great British Museum only on one of my very last days.  I felt like I'd done the big ones, and wanted to focus this trip more on just getting to know the city.  SO - I didn't go to the National Gallery, the Tate (or the Tate Modern, as mentioned before), or any of the science museums - all of which are apparently great.  I think I regret skipping the National Gallery, but... too many things to do & see, so I'll just bump it up to the top of the list for my next visit.   The most fabulous thing about most of the London museums?  They're FREE!  (For the most part...)  I mean - the only other city like that is DC, and I just think it's such a fabulous thing.  Donations are accepted everywhere, and to be honest- I think it's a crime if you don't drop a couple of pounds in to see the amazing stuff you get to see.  Especially the two I visited:  The British Museum and the Victoria & Albert museum. I'll give a few notes on each, of course colored by my interests & experiences.

First up - the V&A.  I really had no interest in going, but my host Alex really thought I should go, and she wanted to go as well, so ... off we went over to the western side of town for what ended up being a really lovely afternoon. The area around the museum, by the South Kensington tube stop, is really cool.  Tons of sidewalk cafes to choose from, with lots of variety (we had a lovely Mediterranean lunch - who said all London had was pubs??).  The V&A itself is MASSIVE, and incredibly confusing.  You will definitely need the map, and you should probably start off figuring out what interests you most, because I simply can't imagine it's possible to "do" the whole museum in one day.  Alex and I?  We tried to focus on clothes, jewelry, and furniture.  That said, we ended up wandering through quite a bit of porcelain & silver, of which there is TONS and TONS.  There is tons of everything in there, honestly.  But the clothing they had was great - amazing old gowns, cool modern evening looks.  Its a really great look at fashion over the centuries (because yes- there is stuff there from the 1700's!!!).  The jewelry was also pretty spectacular.  Beautiful pieces from sparkling tiaras to funky modern brooches - again- spanning centuries, often with great stories to accompany the pieces.  Getting to the furniture was a bit of a challenge, and to be honest it probably wasn't worth the second trek through the porcelain gallery.  Poor Alex sat to rest weary feet while I wandered the hall, but even I couldn't muster much interest for long.  Final stop:  the really awesome museum shop.  It's not big (especially compared to the museum), but it was chock full of fun stuff.  I definitely picked-up a few last-minute gifts there.  :)

Secondly:  The British Museum.  This is the big daddy in London, and one I vividly remembered from even my first visit, way back in high school.  It literally started by one aristocrat donating all the stuff he found & took while on one of his grand tours.  Including, ridiculously, about half of the Parthenon (though I don't think it was the original donor that did that, but, still!).  It definitely shows the power & might of the old Empire with what they have on display, very very little of which is actually "British".  But, finders keepers I guess, and ethical questions aside- it really is ridiculously amazing.  I actually decided to visit with London Walks (who I mentioned before, and they are amazing) which turned out to be a so-so decision.  I liked our guide, along with her plan of taking us through the museum, but there were about 40 (FORTY!!) people in the group.  I mean, that was just absurd, and one problem with London Walks.  Since there are no reservations, there are no limits to the tour size (for the most part).  For some reason, they didn't provide another guide for this "walk", so we all had to squish around this awesome lady to try to hear what she was saying.  Part of our group seemed to be some sort of school group, with college-aged kids, and they just were not having it.  I think they'd arrived that day and thus were dealing with jet-lag, as well as a noticeable lack of interest, so there was much grumbling from them.  I just tried to stay as close as possible to the guide, and I did learn a bunch from her, so overall, I'm glad I did it.  She decided to focus on the top 10 (or so?) most important artifacts in the museum, and gave stories on why each was significant in the context of the time and/or discovery.  So we covered the biggies (the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon friezes, an early mummy, ect), but also saw some stuff I would've never noticed.  I can't imagine trying to do this museum on your own - it's so big, and has so much great stuff, that I'm sure you'd just get overwhelmed.  Also- note that it's a bit out of the way from other sights.  It's not far, just not right next to Westminster or anything, so plan accordingly (Tottenham Court Road is the closest tube stop, though Holborn is close as well,and where the London Walks tour meets).

Considering I saw only two of the major museums in London on this trip and yet spent two full afternoons inside them, I would really recommend considering carefully before visiting.  If you're not a fan of history, maybe skip the British Museum (sacrilege!!).  Similarly, if you could care less about decorative arts, don't bother with the slightly chaotic V&A.  That said, if you've got the time, it won't cost you much financially to go and see some amazing creations - you will definitely be enriched by what you see.

 Detail from one side of the figures that used to decorate the pediment of the Parthenon.  They're huge, and even perfectly carved on the back as well.

Detail from one side of the figures that used to decorate the pediment of the Parthenon.  They're huge, and even perfectly carved on the back as well.