Simon Willison’s Weblog


What are the few must-do things in London before one leaves this place for good?

8th August 2012

My answer to What are the few must-do things in London before one leaves this place for good? on Quora

In terms of museums, it really is worth checking out the big four: the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the V&A. They’re all exceptional (and free to enter). Here are some highlights...

At the British Museum the headline items are probably the Rosetta stone and the Elgin Marbles, but the range of Egyptian antiquities is astonishing (the second largest collection in the world, after the Egyptian Museum in Cairo) and they have equally impressive collections from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Asia... it’s absolutely worth taking the time to explore. They also have a mummified cat, tucked away in one of the Egyptian galleries.

Highlights in the Science Museum include the original Stephenson’s Rocket (one of the first steam train designs), Watson and Crick’s DNA model made out of bits and pieces of lab equipment and an amazing Space section, which has the Apollo 10 command module (which orbited the moon) and the last remnants of the British space program—Black Arrow, which looks like the spaceship-eating space ship from You Only Live Twice. Their flight section is excellent (they have a cutaway slice of a 747) and if you head to the very top of the museum you can explore a fabulous medical section, which hosts a set of George Washington’s dentures and some terrifying historical medical equipment.

The Natural History Museum is famous for its dinosaurs (though it’s worth noting that the most famous of all of them, Dippy the Diplodocus, is actually a 26m long plaster cast—albeit one that’s over 100 years old now!) but it’s also one of the most architecturally impressive buildings in London—a beautiful piece of Victorian architecture. In addition to the dinosaurs there are fabulous collections of stuffed animals and some great geology exhibits (there’s even a moon rock)—but the most exciting exhibit is probably the Giant Squid—which I believe is the only one on public display anywhere in the world. It’s not in a public gallery but you can book on to a free behind-the-scenes tour of the spirit building to see it (tours run several times a day, just ask at an information desk). The spirit building itself is amazing—it’s the largest collection of things-stored-in-alcohol-in-jars anywhere in the world, and includes Charles Darwin’s personal collection. Here’s a useful tip: if the main entrance has massive queues, look for the much smaller side entrance next to the Science Museum—it usually has no queues at all.

The Victoria and Albert Museum showcases decorative art and design in a stunning range of galleries. Of particular interest are the two central halls which exhibit an enormous range of ancient monuments—pillars, doorways, walls, statues... all of which are fake! In preparation for the Great Exhibition of 1851 teams travelled around the world creating life-sized plaster casts of a huge range of monuments—and after the exhibition most of these ended up forming the initial collection for the V&A. Many of the originals have since been destroyed making the plaster collection unique and utterly fascinating—the replicas themselves are over 150 years old. My other personal favourites: Tippoo’s Tiger—a mechanical tiger savaging a European soldier, with a pipe organ hidden inside. And... the ironwork gallery, which has a beautiful collection of biscuit tins.

I haven’t even begun to do justice to these museums, but if you haven’t been to them you really do owe yourself a couple of days of exploration. Go on a week day when they won’t be completely packed with children, and for the best experience head straight to the furthest/highest point in the museum from the entrance and work your way backwards—there are plenty of gems hidden away in the far corners, and even if the rest of the museum is packed you’ll be sure to find empty galleries back there.

This is What are the few must-do things in London before one leaves this place for good? by Simon Willison, posted on 8th August 2012.

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