London has more than its fair share of museums and art galleries thanks to the British ruling half of the world. The most noteworthy are:
- The British Museum
- The National Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery
- Victoria and Albert Museum
- National History Museum
- Tate Museum
- Tate Modern
- Museum of London
- Imperial War Museum
- V&A Museum of Childhood
Out of these, we managed to see four in this visit leaving others for future visits (hopefully!).
The best thing about British museums and galleries is that they are free for everyone. Perhaps the only right thing the British have done, after looting the colonial countries, is not to charge visitors to see their own heritage.
The British Museum
The British Museum has some of the most amazing collections in the world. With seventy galleries and about eight million artifacts, it is one of the largest museums in the world. We decided to keep one full day to visit the British Museum. It is one place where I can spend my whole life without getting bored.
We reached the South entrance of the museum quite early when there was no queue. The first thing that struck me, as soon as I entered the magnificent Greek temple-like entrance with colonnade and pediment was a great open area with lots of natural light.
It was unexpected. With that kind of entrance, I was expecting was an old building and narrow rooms. Instead, The Great Court, as it’s known, had the sun pouring in. The ceiling was exceptionally high and had a glass roof.
I learned later that although the museum is housed in the same building since it was first opened in 1759, it has gone through a number of enhancements particularly in the years leading up to 2000. The Great Court and the South entrance were new additions. The monumental look of the South entrance was designed to reflect the purpose of the building and prepare the visitors for the wondrous objects housed inside.
One Man’s Cabinet of Curiosities Became a Nation’s Museum
The British Museum was established in 1753, from the collection of a single person, an Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane.
During the course of his lifetime, Sloane gathered a large collection of curiosities. Not wishing to see his collection broken up after death, he bequeathed it to King George II, for the nation, for a sum of £20,000.
At that time, Sloane’s collection consisted of around 71,000 objects of all kinds including some 40,000 printed books, 7,000 manuscripts, extensive natural history specimens including 337 volumes of dried plants, prints, drawings and antiquities from Sudan, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Ancient Near and the Far East and the Americas.
Its expansion over the following 250 years was largely a result of expanding British colonization. Later on, it resulted in the creation of several branch institutions, the first being the Natural History Museum in 1881.
It was the first public national museum in the world. It documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. It was also the first public building to be electrically lit.
The Rosetta Stone
The most precious object in the museum is the Rosetta Stone. It was the key to unlocking the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone has inscribed on it a decree passed by Egyptian priests on the first anniversary of the coronation of the Pharoah, Ptolemy V.
The decree is written in hieroglyphics, in demotic or everyday Egyptian of the period, and in Greek. By comparing the three languages on the tablet, scholars were finally able to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics.
How it came to British possession is another story.
The stone was discovered in 1799, during the Napoleonic Wars, by French soldiers digging the foundation of a fortress in El-Rashid. The British acquired it, along with other Egyptian antiquities, under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria when Napoleon was defeated.
It has been displayed at the British Museum since 1802 except during WWII when it was hidden in a deep tunnel under London.
Easter Island statue
Hoa Hakananai’a – is an original Easter Island ancestor statue, made of basalt.
The name Hoa Hakanania’a means “Stolen or Hidden Friend”. It was probably carved around A.D. 1200.
It was acquired from a ceremonial center in Orongo, Rapa Nui, in 1869 and was presented to Queen Victoria who then gave it to the British Museum.
One of my favorite artifacts is the first library in the world. The last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (reigned 668 – about 630 BC) created the world’s first library (below) to contain all knowledge in his palace Nineveh.
The tablets provide an unparalleled glimpse into the world of Assyria and Babylonia and what came before. Among thousands of tablets were kept some of the greatest works written in Mesopotamia, including the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The king’s library also contained extensive writing on divination, astrology, medicine, and mathematics.
Victoria and Albert Museum
I liked the Victoria and Albert Museum the most. It is massive, has the most varied collection and a lot of information about each exhibit.
It is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design, as well as sculptures.
It houses a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects.
It was founded in 1852 by Prince Albert and his like-minded friends.
The museum was the result of the great foresightedness of Prince Albert whose vision was to educate designers, manufacturers and the public in art and design.
Its origins lie in the Great Exhibition of 1851 – the world’s first international display of design and manufacturing.
Following the Exhibition, its creator and champion, Prince Albert, saw the need to maintain and improve the standards of the British industry to compete in the international marketplace.
The most spectacular area in the museum is the Cast Courts. The Cast Courts were purpose-built in 1873 for the museum’s collection of copies of art and architecture.
At a time when most people could not afford to travel abroad to see important works, it was common for museums to supplement their collections with replicas in plaster. This made the museums a more effective educational resource.
The Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum have remained relatively unchanged since they were built. The iconic collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum is the biggest collection in the world which includes a copy of Trajan’s Column (shown in two parts because it is too high for the building) and Michelangelo’s David.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery houses a collection of portraits of historically important and famous British people. It was the first portrait gallery in the world when it opened in 1856. It is situated at St Martin’s Place, off Trafalgar Square adjoining the National Gallery.
We spend almost three hours there. Not all the portraits are of exceptional quality but almost all of them are of historical significance. I particularly liked the following three portraits of Queen Elizabeth 1, Mary the Queen of Scott’s and Malala Yousafzai (an activist for female education).
I already wrote about The National Gallery in my post Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and the National Gallery.
Did you like the post? Did anything the post surprise you? Would you like me to write more about the museum and galleries I visited?
Let me know through the comments section.