Free museums and galleries in London
The capital may have a reputation for being an expensive place to visit in terms of accommodation and food (somewhat deservedly), but that doesn’t mean there’s not loads of free stuff to do in London that you can take advantage of when it comes to entertainment. In particular, London has the finest collection of free museums and galleries in the world. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decided in the late 19th century that culture and education should be accessible to everyone and opened a number of free museums in ‘museumland’ (the V&A, the National History Museum and the Science Museum) - thus beginning a long history of free museums and galleries in the city that thrives even today.
We’re incredibly lucky that such an amazing resource still exists - particularly in difficult economic times - and most galleries will have a box for you to drop an entirely voluntary donation in. Many also have touring exhibitions that require a fee for entry. However, the fact remains that the generally huge and world-class resident collections in these wonderful institutions are completely free.
Free museums and galleries in London
The Natural History Museum.
The Natural History Museum (http://www.nhm.ac.uk) is fantastic for kids and grown ups alike. Adults will enjoy the huge collections of natural specimens covering flora, fauna, insects, geology and sea creatures, as well as nature photography and art. And for the kids there’s DINOSAURS! Including a giant, animatronic T-Rex that roars and eyes up tasty young specimens as potential dinner.
The Earth Gallery is also well worth a visit. Including an escalator through the centre of the Earth, footage of volcanoes erupting and a simulation of a Japanese supermarket during an earthquake, it’s a great, immersive experience.
For the more academically minded, the new Darwin Centre explores how research scientists use the collection to draw conclusions about the world, the environment and evolution.
The Natural History Museum gets pretty busy during school holidays and weekends and you should probably expect to queue a bit to get in. Once you’re in though, everyone spreads out and things get a little easier.
*Insider tip* - There’s a secondary entrance on Exhibition Road that doesn’t seem to get used as much. Try this first - particularly as it leads straight into the aforementioned Earth Gallery.
The Science Museum
The Science Museum (http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/) has a huge, eclectic collection covering a wide range of topics from space flight, to the history of medicine, to how genes make us who we are.
There are loads and loads of highly interactive exhibits (many using some really cutting edge technology) and some genuinely awe-inspiring objects. Where else would you find the actual Gipsy Moth flown by Amy Johnson from Britain to Australia in 1928, in the same building as a computer showing you what your face will look like as you age?
For younger children, there’s a great interactive gallery demonstrating many of the basic principles of physics in a fun, engaging way. And for the more ecologically minded there’s a large section devoted to environmental issues, recycling, renewable energy and the like.
All of this is free, but there are also some paid for additions that are worth bearing in mind. The Science Museum has its own IMAX theatre for one and there are also a number of simulators dotted around - including one that allows you to experience flying in the cockpit of a Red Arrow.
The V&A (Victoria & Albert Museum)
Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were great socialists and built a number of museums and galleries for the enjoyment of all Britons, especially Londoners. The V&A (http://www.vam.ac.uk/) was the museum they gave their name to and it houses a huge collection of artifacts covering art & design from antiquity to almost modern day.
Items in the collection range from paintings, to furniture, ceramics, textiles, fashion, sculpture and architecture. You can explore major design eras & movements or just drift aimlessly, looking at the beautiful objects that the museum has amassed over the years. Although not free, the temporary exhibitions are often very insightful and beautifully curated.
The main gallery is more for the adults than the children as there are fewer interactive exhibits and it’s a bit more traditional in its content. That said, there are often activities for children available downstairs in the workshop area and it’s well worth checking out the ‘subject hub’ on the website to see what’s on.
The museum also provides free activity ‘backpacks’ for families to borrow, which include a range of genuinely fun activities, puzzles, construction games and even objects that they can handle. The backpacks come in a number of themes to complement the main galleries so you can pick and choose according to what you want to see.
Housed in an old power station on London’s South Bank, the Tate Modern (http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/) is a must visit for anyone who appreciates modern art.
The building itself is amazing, with the massive turbine hall left completely open so visitors can appreciate the sheer scale of the place. The (unfortunately rather expensive) restaurant at the top of the building also offers impressive views across the river to St Pauls and the city. You don’t need to buy anything - just nip up for a gawp at the scenery.
The collections change every now and then, but expect to see iconic works by Dali, Bacon, Picasso, Matisse, Rothko and Warhol as well as work by contemporary artists such as Gilbert & George, Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin. There are often some really interesting pieces of installation art as well.
The book and gift shops are superb so if you’re on a budget, enter at your peril!
*Insider Tip* - if you’re also planning to visit the Tate Britain, there’s a Tate-to-Tate boat that offers a shuttle service. It’s not free, but it’s more fun than the bus or the tube and gives you a chance to see London - including the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament - from the water.
Museum of London
The Museum of London (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/) is a fascinating look at London’s history right from prehistoric times all the way up to the modern day. There are some real surprises - for example, if you’ve ever been to Essex you’ll have a hard time imagining it as a tropical wilderness populated by lions and monkeys, but the skeletons are hard evidence! There’s also a woolly rhino skull found in the heart of London’s shopping district.
There are some other real gems here: a Roman leather bikini, Oliver Cromwell’s death mask, a recreated 18th century pleasure garden with specially commissioned masks and hats by Philip Treacy, an original 18th century prison cell (complete with original graffiti), Emmeline Pankhurst’s hunger strike medal and a recreated Victorian London street amongst them.
The museum is based in the heart of the city, so combine it with a free trip to St Pauls, a wander round the London Wall or some window shopping at the new ‘One New Change’ shopping centre.
The Museum of London’s sister museum - The Museum of London Docklands (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/docklands/) - is also well worth a visit.
This is only a few of the free museums and galleries that London has to offer. Part two of this guide is coming soon!