The Museums of London

Lecture 21—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

Trade the calm of the country for the bustle of the city. Professor Allitt takes you to some of the world’s finest museums, including the British Museum, home to the controversial Elgin Marbles, once plundered from the Parthenon in Athens. You’ll also visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, and the Tate Modern.

Click on GREEN links to visit the highlighted location in Google Maps. Hover over BLUE text for more information about that item.

London is probably the best place in the world for museums and art galleries. You can spend months exploring them, big and small.

The British Museum in London

Let’s start with the earliest of them: the British Museum. It opened its doors to the public in 1759 and has been accumulating and displaying treasures ever since. It now has more than 8 million holdings, only a fraction of which can ever be on display at the same time.

The most controversial objects on display are the Elgin Marbles. They are a series of carvings that were taken from the Parthenon in Athens by Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the Napoleonic Wars. For sheer visual impact, don’t miss the museum’s Egyptian statues and mummies, of which there are dozens, and the Assyrian lions and wall carvings.

While you’re there, remember to look out for the Roman mosaics, but also for the spectacular stone carvings from Pre-Columbian Honduras and the incredible suits of Japanese armor.

National Portrait Gallery

National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery was the first portrait gallery in the world when it opened in 1856.

Just around the corner from the National Gallery is the National Portrait Gallery. It was founded in 1856 by a prominent politician, Lord Stanhope, and two of the era’s leading intellectuals, Thomas Carlyle and Thomas Babington Macaulay. The criterion for inclusion here is not the artist’s importance, as at the National Gallery, but the subject’s importance.

Take a long escalator ride to the top of the building and then walk down through the centuries. Start with King Henry VII. Familiar images of Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and Shakespeare soon follow.

The Victoria and Albert

From Trafalgar Square, travel a mile or two to South Kensington, where you’ll discover a trio of world-class museums. First, is the Victoria and Albert, an initiative of the 1850s. Londoners call it the “V and A ”

The Victoria and Albert - Museums in London
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, founded in 1852, is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. Wikipedia

Following the Great Exhibition of 1851, at the purpose-built Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park, the V&A was designed to feature the best examples of workmanship from all over the world. The building itself is distinguished. It’s a red-brick palace with great stone towers, big domes, and a superb attention to more intimate details around the windows and doors. It is built round an open courtyard where, on fine days, visitors pause to enjoy the sun. The interior decoration is rich, with, mosaic tile floors, painted ceilings and frescos on many of the walls, including a giant set by Frederick Leighton, one of the Victorians’ favorite artists.

Among the collections is a First Folio of Shakespeare from 1623. And the V&A has marvelous holdings in the history of ecclesiastical ornaments, stained glass, and tapestries. It’s also very strong on ceramics, to which most of the top floor is dedicated. The nearby furniture gallery includes superb examples from Chippendale and many of the other most famous craftsmen through the centuries—cupboards and wardrobes of sumptuous materials that look as though they took most of a lifetime to complete.

Even though painting is, comparatively, a sideline for the V&A, it still has a formidable collection of old masters, such as a room full of landscapes by Constable.

Natural History Museum in England

Natural History Museum in England
Hintze Hall in the Natural History Museum in London. The museum is home to life and earth science specimens within five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, and zoology. Wikipedia

A hundred yards along Cromwell Road you will come to the Natural History Museum, rival in opulence and scale to the V&A.

Britain has a distinguished tradition of geologists and biologists, of whom Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin are probably the most illustrious. The fruits of their labors are exhibited here, along with those of thousands more natural scientists.

Children love the Natural History Museum because of the dinosaurs, some of which are now robotized, and can swing their great heads and roar—they’re scary, but not too scary. Beneath the glitz there’s an immense and comprehensive paleontological collection, clearly labeled.

The crowning glory of the Natural History Museum is Hintze Hall, which might be the second greatest interior space in the whole of London after the immense central crossing of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It feels like a mighty temple to science; every breath you draw there is invigorating.

Another massive open area, three floors high, features an escalator that carries you through the solar system and into a model of the Earth itself, red and pulsating.

The Science Museum in London

The Science Museum in London
The Science Museum is a major museum on Exhibition Road in South Kensington, London. It was founded in 1857 and today is one of the city’s major tourist attractions.

The third of the South Kensington triumvirate is the Science Museum, on Exhibition Road between the other two. A spinoff from the V&A, it concentrates on science and technology since 1800, and is equally good with very rare items (such as the capsule of the Apollo 10 lunar mission) and very common ones, such as wrenches and screwdrivers.

Other features of the Science Museum are a lovely aluminum aircraft that is suspended over the great open space; examples of stylish design through the decades, such as one of the last generation of Royal Mail stage coaches; and some elegant Italian “bubble cars” of the 1950s and 1960s. The end of the museum is as much technology as science but farther back and upstairs are informative areas on meteorology, climate, and physiology.

The Tate Gallery

The Tate Gallery
Tate Modern opened in 2000.

From the South Kensington museums walk east toward the Thames to reach the Tate Gallery. It began in 1897 as a spinoff from the National Gallery, to hold the collection of British art. It is rich in paintings by Turner, who bequeathed to the nation his whole collection.

When a coal-fired power station on the South Bank of the Thames closed down in 1981, the trustees of the Tate Gallery bought it and converted it into a home for their modern art collection, opening to the public in 2000. Right from the start the Tate Modern was a sensational success. The exhibit there changes regularly, but there’s also a comprehensive permanent collection in a set of adjacent galleries. It includes works by all the great moderns: Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Mondrian, de Chirico, Franz Marc, and many others.

You’ll enjoy leaving the Tate Modern, looking across the Thames to see St. Paul’s Cathedral on the horizon, and then crossing the Millennium Bridge. When it opened, this pedestrian footbridge, commissioned to mark the year 2000, wobbled so severely in the wind that it had to be closed almost at once. Extra bracing was added and the bridge has since become a national treasure.

Imperial War Museum
Founded in 1917, the museum was intended to record the war effort and sacrifice of Britain and its Empire during the First World War.

Imperial War Museum

South of the Thames, like the Tate Modern, is the Imperial War Museum. Its name is a little misleading, since it’s actually devoted mainly to the history of the two world wars, rather than to the history of Britain’s four centuries of imperial warfare.

One annex of the Imperial War Museum is the Cabinet War Rooms. This series of concrete bunkers housed Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his staff during the worst years of German bombardment, in 1940 and 1941. Take the tour, if possible.

Museum of London

Right in the middle of the City of London, in the financial district, stands the Museum of London, in a circular building that is also a busy traffic roundabout. Archaeologists have unearthed objects from the last 3,000 years, all found nearby, and displayed them here. An exhibit on Roman London notes that by the year AD 120, “Londinium” was the biggest city in Britain, with 45,000 people, and would not regain that size until the 13th century. Galleries of each era in the city’s history increase your appreciation for its longevity and for the central role it has played in the life of the nation and the world. As you can see from this brief survey, London is crammed full of first-rate museums. This means that rainy days in London, of which there are many, will never leave you with nothing to do.


Interactive Map of All London Museums Mentioned in This Lecture

Suggested Online Reading About England’s Museums

The Natural History Museum
Biography of Charles Lyell
The Tate Modern Blavatnik Building
The Imperial War Museum


Images Courtesy of:
Bust of Ramses II, By Pbuergler [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons