I grew up in a museum-going family. In fact, a stop-at-every-historical-site-off-the-side-of-the-road road trip family. Learning is great.
So naturally, since most of London’s museums are free, we went to one almost every day.
Here they are.
1. National Maritime Museum
This is actually in Greenwich, south of London. You know, where the Prime Meridian is that they base time zones from as it cuts the earth figuratively down the middle?
There’s an old sailing ship, one of the last functioning, called the Cutty Sark. My dad could tell you a lot more about it than I could.
What I know about it is that it was a record-setting fast ship, with trade routes for tea to China, and wool to Australia. Built in 1869. There is a Cutty Sark museum, but the one we went to was a few block away, and it talked about British ships, sailing, pirating in general.
These are figureheads from various vessels: merchant ships, battle ships, fishing ships. Try to guess which type of figure belongs to which type of ship – I found the connections interesting.
If you are interested in ships or 18-19th century commerce, this is probably a good museum for you. I mostly enjoyed being around the Prime Meridian.
2. The Wallace Collection
This is a mansion full of art – a collection from a marquis passed down to his illegitimate son who organized it into a collection for display.
There is a TON of art in this place. The most famous piece is The Laughing Cavalier, although there is also a Rembrandt self-portrait. I prefer sculpture and ornate furniture to paintings, personally, but this house had a bit of everything. Even the rooms were like works of art.
3. The Royal Academy of Music
This is a tiny museum in the same neighborhood as the Wallace mansion, which is Marylebone/Baker Street area. On the ground floor they had a small exhibit on WWI music, which I found very interesting. It makes sense they used songs to uplift and recruit people for the war efforts, but it’s not an aspect of wartime that’s given much focus or thought.
The first floor up has a collection of old and interesting string instruments, while the second floor up has a collection of beautiful pianos. Free, and worth a jaunt if you are a musician, particularly in an orchestra.
Here is a medieval lute that got me a bit excited:
4. Sherlock Holmes Museum
And since we were in the neighborhood, who can resist?
There isn’t actually an apartment numbered 221b, unfortunately, but they have furnished an apartment to look like what Sherlock’s flat would’ve been like. Meticulously detailed and unreasonably exciting, they did a great job in making you feel like you were actually popping in for a sneak peek of Sherlock’s space.
5. The Exhibition at Shakespeare’s Globe
Right. Obviously a big fan of Will’s. So even though we arrived only an hour before closing time, I tried to soak up as much of this as possibly. Mostly the exhibit is about the rebuilding of the Globe after it burned down twice. What’s standing there today is only a few decades old but is designed after the 1600s model. The rest of the exhibit focuses on what the Globe is doing now – the costumes, props, historical accuracy of the plays they put on currently.
This one is cheap, not free, but I really enjoyed it. I personally think it’s a must if you respect Shakespeare at all, but I tend to be rather earnest about such things.
6. The Churchill War Rooms
This was one of the most fascinating museums for me. I wish I had gotten several more hours there.
(Churchill’s bedroom in the underground war rooms)
As a writer, I am always fascinated by what makes people the way they are. This museum not only exhibited the intensity and gravity of Churchill’s efforts during WWII, but also had a massive section about Churchill’s entire life, from birth to death. It was really nice to get a full picture of him, instead of just a poster boy version.
However, I think my favorite part of the whole thing was this door:
What appears to be an “engaged” bathroom door – is actually the door to the transatlantic telephone. They disguised it as such so that no one would disturb Churchill as he talked with Roosevelt. Absolutely brilliant.
7. The British Museum
Not entirely sure why this is called the British Museum. It should be called “All the things from all the cultures that Britain could get its hands on Museum”.
Because basically, this is Indiana Jones’ paradise. The ultimate place of anthropology and archaeology.
For example, this horse head sculpture from the Parthenon:
Or maybe you’d rather see this fancy snake from Mexico?
Maybe a golden goddess?
Or the first ever known chess set from the Isle of Lewis in the highlands?
If none of those impressed you, I don’t know if this will, but it was definitely the thing to see in the museum:
Yeah, you saw that right. The Rosetta Stone. Booyah.
Okay, so I obviously love history and culture – this museum was a trove – like Ariel’s grotto – how many wonders can one cavern hold?!
If you are like me, just block out a week to be in this museum.
I told you, a good trip to London where you’ll see everything and not be rushed – plan on a year.