4 Must-See Museums in London
1. The British Museum
The British Museum is one of London's top attractions and is arguably the most famous museum in the world. It seems incredible that such a prominent institution is free for visitors, at least as far as the permanent collection is concerned. Although there is a charge for temporary exhibits, the prices are extremely reasonable.
The museum began with a donation from a prominent British physician, Sir Hans Sloane, when he died in 1753. Sloane had spent much of his life traveling and collecting curiosities, books, manuscripts, flora and fauna from around the world; He donated this collection to the nation upon his death. The museum was opened to the public in 1759 and has continued to grow ever since, becoming a lasting British institution and destination for millions of travelers from all over the world.
It would take a lifetime to see the entire collection that is available at the museum. For first time visitors, some of the most high profile parts of the collection include the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Greece, an Easter Island statue (Hoa Hakananai'a), the Rosetta Stone, items from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and countless others. Every room is worth visiting, with the Greek and Egyptian galleries being among the most popular. The Enlightenment Gallery (formerly known as the King's Library because it originated from George II's collection by donation of his son, George IV, in 1823) is particularly beautiful, and it was the first room that was constructed in the new museum's new location. The collection had grown so large and was attracting so many visitors by the early 1800's that a new building needed to be designed to house the collection, the foundation of which was constructed by 1857.
The building itself is incredible, housing the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which is the largest covered courtyard in Europe. The exterior facade is stunning, featuring classical architecture. The British Museum is located in Bloomsbury in central London and is easily accessible by all modes of transport.
2. The Victoria and Albert Museum
Located right next to both the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum constitutes one of the three major museums in South Kensington (the Science Museum is not discussed in this article, but is well-worth a visit as well). The museums are all easily accessible from the South Kensington tube station, with underground walkways pointing you in the right direction. The V&A, as it is commonly known, was founded in 1852 in honour of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Its origins date to the Great Exhibition, of which Albert was a major supporter and enthusiast.
The collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum is largely focused on art and design, with exhibits ranging from historical clothing to prints to photographs to sculptures. The collection spans a period of over 5,000 years from the ancient to the modern. Absolutely not to be missed is the clothing exhibit. Looking at history through the lens of the contemporary fashions of the period is certainly a different way of looking at history than one is used to seeing in museum - as well as being both education and hilarious at times. Also not to be missed is the Revolution Gallery, with iconic items from the revolutions of different nations and demographics around the world. Interestingly, the laying of the foundation stone at the Aston Webb Building was Queen Victoria's last public appearance.
The collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum gives one the impression that she's wandering through the elaborate attic of a wealthy old woman. The items are seemingly odd and random at first glance, but in spending a day at the Victoria and Albert, you will definitely learn some things that you never thought you would learn.
3. The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is one of the three major museums in South Kensington. Much of the original collection came from the same donation that Sir Hans Sloane left to the nation to establish the British Museum. However, when the British Museum became too large, a new museum became necessary to house the ever-growing collection that is now the Natural History Museum which visitors frequent today. The building is one of the most superb in London, with its facade boasting spectacular high Victorian Romanesque architecture; the main entrance when one walks through the doors is breathtaking and immersive, starting the journey into the museum's collection with the museum's famous resident "Dippy" greeting upon your arrival. Dippy is the replica of a Diplodocus carnegii, and was one of the original donations to the museum in 1905.
Again, to see everything that this museum has to offer would be next to impossible. Highlights include items from Darwin's own collection, including a first edition of The Origin of Species and some of his canaries, which he studied while he was formulating his theories on natural selection, a lion skull from the menagerie at the Tower of London, and a portion of a rare Sequoia trunk with an incredible timeline inscribed on it. Also not to be missed is the Dinosaur wing and the Large Mammals Hall, complete with the famous resident blue whale. The display features a skeleton with a parallel model of the whale, weighing a total of 10 tons and standing 25 meters in length. The Earth Galleries are also spectacular - visitors can ascend into a spinning model of the Earth, giving them a view of our planet from the inside out.
The Natural History Museum is educational, immersive, and fascinating, and is the perfect way to spend a day in London for both children and adults alike.
4. Cabinet War Rooms
Also referred to commonly as Churchill's War Rooms, this museum is a must-see for anyone who is interested in delving into some of the world's more recent history and exploring the life of one of the 20th century's most fascinating and influential leaders. The collection gives visitors incredible insight into England's working war rooms during the Second World War in the very spot where the strategical action took place. Churchill and company all but lived in this underground bunker during the war, and the rooms were left virtually untouched when the war ended in 1945 until the museum was opened to the public in 1984 . A person needs at least half a day to do justice to the collection on display - from an unbelievable array of Churchill's personal and professional possessions from childhood to old age to maps charting the progress of the war on the walls to a German bomb from the air raids hanging above the entrance. Visitors also can view the personal kitchens and bedrooms of Mr. and Mrs. Churchill, where half of a cigar still sits on Churchill's nightstand, as well as those of many other individuals who comprised Churchill's political force. Don't miss the room where Churchill's cabinet would meet, don't miss the Map Room, and be sure to listen to the stories of individuals who actually lived in those rooms with Churchill during the era.
The Cabinet War Rooms are centrally located at the heart of British Parliament beneath Westminster, and are easily accessible by all modes of transportation. After touring Churchill's bunker, walk towards Parliament Square, where Churchill's statue still stands guard in the shadow of Big Ben, looking out towards Westminster Bridge. Of all the museums on this list, the Cabinet War Rooms is the only one with an admission price, but it is definitely worth the cost.
Of course, London has a vastly larger number of museums than the ones that have been mentioned in this article. It would be ideal if one had time to explore each one of them, but to do so thoroughly would undoubtedly take a few lifetimes. The museums discussed in this article have much to offer visitors, with the added bonus being that all of them, excluding The Cabinet War Rooms, are free admission.