London's museums and galleries are world class, inspiring and brilliant. Most are also free but that doesn't necessarily mean they're simple to get into.
Yesterday I went to seven of the biggest to see how much of a faff it was. To keep things simple I didn't take a bag with me, I just swanned up to the main entrance and attempted to walk inside. It being a Friday in January there were no queues, so any delays were solely the choice of the institution concerned.
I'm pleased to say that two of the seven were entirely unfaffy... I walked straight in unchallenged and enjoyed what lay beyond.
My congratulations to Tate Modern and the V&A for letting visitors just walk inside. This is a particular triumph for Tate Modern because in autumn 2021 the faffiness of their late-covid entrance procedures frustrated me to the point of almost bursting into tears.
Let's count down the remaining five in order of increasing faffiness as I bring you...
London's Faffiest Museums
5)Imperial War Museum
I nearly got away with this one. I walked up the main steps and although an attendant was on duty beside the second set of doors I had clear blue water between me and the museum entrance. But then a voice called out from the ticket desk as another member of staff asked "Have you been here before?" I didn't say dozens of times, I just said yes, and then she slipped in her next scripted question... "Are you interested in donating £5?" A fair enough request, and there were indeed devices for fixed-price donations lined up by the door, but I declined. This was only a few seconds of diversion so not especially faffy, and that's why the IWM comes in fifth. I enjoyed the new-ish Second World War Galleries, technically my second time round but it's so much better when there isn't a large school party going round too.
4)Natural History Museum
This wasn't too terrible but they don't let you walk straight in, they've set up a chicane just inside the main entrance. This is ostensibly for bag checking purposes but towards the end includes a separate chicane designed to funnel you past the contactless donation terminals. They have a fivepounder and a tenpounder, you can't miss them. What's more two members of staff were positioned to either side yesterday, eagerly exhorting visitors to cough up with a heartfelt "any donations will be gratefully received". I didn't see a single person tap anything as they walked past, but the spiel must work if it's worth devoting two waged employees solely to schmoozing for cash. In the Vault at the back of the Minerals gallery I admired a 103g chunk of the Winchcombemeteorite, the pre-prehistoric space rock that crashlanded onto a Gloucestershire driveway a couple of years ago.
3)The National Gallery
This is the museum that takes security most seriously. Everybody who enters has to walk through a detector arch, awaiting their turn while the lights change from red to green and the guard ushers them through. It's never made explicit what's being detected but given recent canvas-based vandalism you'd hope it spots knives, glue and soup. Once my scrutiny was complete I was invited to head straight for the revolving doors - "Come this way please, you don't have any bag" - and I can't imagine how dispiriting it must be to spend your entire working day saying that. In Room 12 is a portrait of a beardy16th century Italian who looks so contemporary (other than the ermine and the feathered hat) that you could well imagine him brooding over a macchiato in Marylebone.
It used to be so easy to nip into the British Museum but that was before they set up the security slalom in the courtyard. By the main gate it divides in three hierarchical channels, one for 'Exhibition ticket holders', one for 'Timed tickets only' and one for 'Non-tickets', whatever non-tickets are. It takes about a minute to walk up to the bag check hut, with no advantage whatsoever for those with timed tickets if there are no queues. Guards wait at little desks entitled Please wait to be called forward which makes it look like you have to stop, except this is where an attendant announced "Guys come this way please, if you have no bags no need to queue". It's very tempting at this point to call back "so why did you drag me all this way so I could ignore an entirely unnecessary process?", but probably unwise. Five staffed donation booths lie ahead, but again are easily snubbed so you can simply head back to the main steps instead. Not only is this full-on unnecessary faff, it looks and feels like a tatty temporary solution the British Museum threw together years ago and have never got round to making permanent. Even though the Queen opened the China & South Asia galleries in 2017 I'd somehow not stumbled upon them before, and not only were they fascinating but also huge and this is why it pays to keep exploring.
London's faffiest museum, without a shadow of a doubt, is the Science Museum. Not only do they want you to pre-book a free ticket, they're fully intent on making you do that even if you walk up to the entrance and the place is empty. Admittedly if you look at their website in advance they do warn "Please note you will need to pre-book a free ticket", but nobody who's been used to just turning up for years would expect such a thing. I think they introduced this system during the pandemic, and I think this because there's still a prominent banner outside the main entrance saying "To help keep everyone safe we're limiting the number of people who can visit each day" and "Please follow Government guidelines on how to keep yourself and others safe" and "If you think you may have COVID-19 symptoms go home and self-isolate". At a museum dedicated to the noble art of science, such woefully out-of-date guidance is piss poor.
This time the entrance is divided into two pathways, one for the compliant and one for the anarchists. The former get to head to a special terminal and scan themselves in and the latter prepare to suffer. Once inside I was asked "Can your phone access QR codes?" and I could see what was coming so I said no, which was a lie but I had no intention of cooperating with their processes. Instead they directed me to a separate desk where a lone member of staff was sitting at a terminal ready to pre-book my ticket. I was really glad there was no queue given how long a single transaction was about to take.
She asked for my name so I made one up and she said oh good that's nice and easy to spell, they're often a lot more complicated than that. Next she asked for my email address and I pretended I didn't have one, which we both knew was a lie but I had no intention of receiving Science Museum marketing spam. She then tapped away at her terminal for at least half a minute, maybe more, and I wondered what kind of ridiculous process required all this additional data entry just to issue a free ticket. Eventually she printed it out and gave it to me, and it included a customer number, an order number, a ticket number and a barcode plus a separate rippy-off section which nobody would ever rip off. On a previous visit I'd then been asked to scan myself in, but on this occasion I was simply directed straight through the barriers making the entire ticketing charade irrelevant.
I can confirm that this Dalek isn't there to exterminate those who fail to donate.
When I got home I checked out the pre-booking system I hadn't used, but which I'd have been expected to use if I'd said my phone was QR-enabled. The number of steps required was insane, especially given this was for a free ticket. First you have to pick a date and book a timeslot. Not a single Friday slot was sold out, indeed only the first slot on Saturday is so far unavailable suggesting the entire procedure is fundamentally pointless. If you pick a timeslot which expires before you reach the checkout they kick you out and you have to start again. Next you select how many tickets you want, ideally ignoring the three "with donation" options at the head of the list and the exhibition upselling which follows.
When you're ready to check out your shopping basket (total £0.00) oh god, they now want you to log in or create an account. It is possible to checkout without registering but they still insist on asking for contact information (three required fields) and a billing address (four more), even though they have no intention of charging you anything. You also have to tick a box to say you're not a robot, but I guess at a Science Museum they can't be too careful. Next they urge you to add a donation, and finally you get through to a confirmation page where it turns out they didn't need to email you a ticket because the QR code you need is right there. And this is on the eighth screen since the beginning of the process, a protracted palaver they were hoping you'd complete in the foyer on your phone. The faff levels here are off the scale. I had a nice walk round, thanks, making sure to tick off the Apollo 10 commandmodule, the 2LOtransmitter and Boris's Covid-19 lecternsign.
No London museum is faffier than the Science Museum. This is not a proud boast, this is deliberate systematic madness, and I hope they see sense and defaff their procedures some day soon.