diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 23, 2013

Museum Mile is the umbrella name for a swathe of museums across the middle of town, between King's Cross and the Aldwych. There are a dozen in total - one a cluster of smaller museums - which makes more than enough to keep anyone busy on a London day out. So, let's go and visit a few...

» British Library: Major book stash, plus treasured manuscripts. [I've visited before] I'm writing this sat on the first floor of the British Library, which is kind of appropriate given that these words will eventually be archived here. The public facing side of the building features temporary and permanent exhibitions - the former currently a display of the A-Z of crime fiction. In a darkened room are illustrated Bibles and Shakespeare's folios along with dozens of other literally important works. In the entrance hall they're spending the day celebrating all things Indian, with music, dance and henna painting. Meanwhile backstage the serious work continues, as students emerge from the Reading Rooms clutching books protected inside clear plastic bags. I've never been up to the third floor before, but the best view's probably from the walkway across the second, looking down over the foyer with the central bookstack towering behind. Busy, serious, welcoming.
» British Museum: Global collection of arts and culture. [I've visited before] You could, indeed probably should, spend an entire day exploring here. The warren of galleries is busy today, with visitors come to pay respects to their own culture and to be inspired by others. On every visit I always manage to discover some corner I've never been inside before - in this case the subterranean Africa galleries showcasing a wealth of craft-based talent from across the continent. Upstairs, also from Africa, is a 1.8m year-old cutting tool - the oldest exhibit in the museum. Always a pleasure, and an education.
» Brunei Gallery: African, Asian and Middle Eastern art. [I've never visited before] Based at SOAS - that's the School of Oriental and African Studies - you might never realise from outside that access was permitted. One room houses finer things from two continents, while the main space is given over to temporary exhibitions. Currently that's beautiful Malaysian textile art downstairs and an eye-opening display of photographs chronicling Waltham Forest's Tamil community upstairs. On the top floor is a roof garden, a bit bleak today, but which must be much nicer in the summer. And every visitor other than me was female, but that's shawls and embroidery for you.
» Charles Dickens Museum: The author's sole remaining London home. [I've visited recently]
» Courtauld Gallery: Petite artshow upstairs at Somerset House. [I've visited before]
» Foundling Museum: London's first home for abandoned children. [I've visited before]
» Museum of Freemasonry: A library full of regalia (and trowels). [I've visited before]
» Grant Museum: Recently revamped collection of zoological specimens. [I've visited before] Relocated from a cramped corner of UCL two years ago, this collection of pickled animals is now housed in a large room on the other side of Gower Street. Saturdays are particularly child-friendly with well-attended hands-on activities run by PhD students at a central table. See rare skeletons (only seven quaggas exist), various bisected heads and the famous jar of moles. Maybe you could join Bex, Jethro and Clemency in sponsoring a dead animal. Even the walrus penis bone is sponsored, thanks to Seamus, but each subscription only lasts a year so you might be able to join the waiting list. A much improved experience.
» Hunterian Museum: 200 years of medical and anatomical history. [I've visited before] John Hunter was an 18th century anatomist whose collection of bones, tissues and body parts supported his teaching work. Now held by the Royal College of Surgeons, and extended, they make an amazing and somewhat morbid ensemble. Perfectly preserved specimens in sparkling jars surround a central gallery, including bits of you that you probably try very hard not to think about. See Charles Babbage's brain, the skeleton of a giant and a variety of dissected animal organs. As an added extra today, graduating medical students are wandering around in mortarboards with their parents and pointing out their favourite glands. Most enlightening, if a bit queasy-making.
» John Soane's Museum: The architect's townhouse, on Lincoln's Inn Fields. [I've visited before] Even in February, best queue early because it gets much busier later. Only 80 people are allowed inside at a time, and they've had 500 visitors every day this week. No electronic devices, warns the Warder at the gate, no large bags and (on Saturdays) no sketching. The interior is an astonishing treasure house of classical collectibles - foreign visitors audibly gasped. Stone carvings cover the walls, relocated monuments fill every alcove, and there's even a proper sarcophagus in the basement. The museum's recently been extended nextdoor into Soane's original home, where there's currently an exhibition of Piranesi drawings - masterworks of perspective. With snowflakes gently swirling around the tiny inner courtyards, viewed through stained glass windows, this is a joy. A regular must-visit.
» London Transport Museum: The capital's transport system, past and present. [I've visited before, obviously]
Petrie Museum: Crammed-in collection of Egyptian artefacts. [I've visited before] This scholarly centre of Egyptology is accessed up a backstair up a backstreet. Here are umpteen shelves of tiny ancient objects, and a room full of chronological pottery, and stacked up chunks of carved hieroglyphics. It's also probably the only place in London where you'll find a painted limestone monkey harpist. Best not to turn up at the same time as a tour party of retired curio hunters - they do block the narrow aisles somewhat. Open afternoons only, and a true open secret.
» Wellcome Collection: All things medical, with a populist touch. [I've visited before] Death is very busy this afternoon. The Wellcome's morbid exhibition closes this weekend, so is packed to the gills with those attempting a last minute visit. I had been expecting a more medical approach to human demise but this is mostly art, in particular a lot of manifestations of grimly staring skulls. It's very trendy place to be seen too - the galleries are full of paired-off twenty somethings and the cafe's seating is full. Come quickly.

Today's post is a first for this blog... started at home, but written in chunks and updated on location. Hurrah for smartphones, and the special Blogger app. I've edited it a bit afterwards, to get rid of some accidental predictive text errors and the like, but hurrah, it all worked.


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