Whenever I’m in London, I make it a point to visit my place of worship. Nope, it’s not St. Paul’s Cathedral, or Westminster Abbey. They’re lovely, but as an Atheist (gasp!) my admiration for English churches doesn’t go much further than the exquisiteness of their towering buttresses, the craftsmanship of stained glass windows or the eerily beautiful acoustics found only in frighteningly cavernous spaces. I’m not really the praying kind. But there is one place that always has me in awe the moment I cross its threshold, and it’s the British Museum.
The British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world and in my opinion, it’s not the sort of activity you squeeze in between a visit to Buckingham, and tour through the Tower of London. It’s a cultural marathon, not designed for the faint of heart and I love it. Approaching that ever familiar Greek revival facade, passing through the grand hall and into the central courtyard, the anticipation was gripping. From Tutankhamen’s mummy (a visiting exhibit from years past), to the Assyrian winged bull gateway and the more hotly contested, Lord Elgin’s Marbles, I can’t help but feel humbled by the privilege of paying homage to the past in such an intimate way. Flipping through the pages of one of my favourite books (History of the World in 100 Objects) is one thing, but when historical research, grueling archaeological excavation and 261 years of careful curation affords me the opportunity me to physically stand in front of everything from a 1.4 million year old handaxe from Olduvai Gorge, to the eclectic treasures of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial site, it’s difficult not to hold this institution is such esteem.
After 7 hours of wandering in and amongst myriad artifacts, acquired from hundreds of thousands of cultural groups from around the globe, I couldn’t help but reflect on what this institution has meant not only to me, but the implications of its existence in the global community. Lest we forget that London, though it may claim to be the center of the modern world, is not accessible to the global majority begging the question, who are museums for? And further, what is their purpose? These are the sorts of questions I’ll be exploring over the next few months as I work my way through a course in Museology at the University of British Columbia, so keep an eye out for posts on that!
For some, spending 7 hours at a museum might make their eyes roll into the back of their head, but for a xenophile, its a mecca. So how do you make the most out of your visit? Here are a few tips to maximize your time, negotiate the crowds and save a few dollars:
Choose Your Time Wisely
The Museum is open from 10am – 5:30pm every day (except for Friday, it’s open until 8:30pm). Keep in mind, this is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, and it’s rare you’ll ever have the Rosetta Stone all to yourself, however, if you’re a keener like myself, being there the moment the doors open will allow you some quiet time before the hoards arrive.
Like I said before, the museum is a marathon, there’s no need to fuss about with coats and excess baggage. The cloakroom charges £1.50 per item, it’s more than worth it.
You Can’t See Everything – Deal With It!
I’ve been to London at least ten times, and I make a trip to the museum every single time! Why? Because it’s damn near impossible to see everything! And if you’re one of those people that reads all the descriptions (like me), you could spend months on end wandering from exhibit to exhibit. Snag a free map from the entrance way, decide what you really want to see, and make your way around. If you can accept that you won’t see everything, there is no need to rush!
Whether it’s the whirlwind 40 minute “eye-opener tours” or the more thorough “Around the World in 90 Minutes” tour (£12 per person), they are always worth it. The guides are busting with knowledge, enthusiastic, delightfully eccentric and so much fun. If you’re newbie to the museum, it’s a great way to orient yourself. The audio tours are great too, but admiring artifacts en masse can feel a bit exhausting after a while.
Save the Pounds – Pack a Lunch!
Everyone knows food at a tourist attraction is neither good nor affordable, and this is London people! I took a peruse around the Great Court Restaurant, and a sandwich and water will set you back about £9.00 (yep, that’s about $16CAD!). You could spend that on a couple of pints at a decent pub in Chelsea! Pack yourself a lunch, and bring lot’s of fluids. You can still dine under the same magnificent roof as restaurant diners, just at half the price!
The rotating exhibits are fabulous, and I can tell you from personal experience, I’ve never been disappointed. This visit, I saw the Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia exhibit. Splendid. And as a student, it only cost me £8.00 (£10.00 per adult).
Get Some “Hands-On” Experience
The museum offers “Object Handling Sessions” daily. I had my session in the “Living and Dying Room”, and had the opportunity to carefully artifacts like a Maori Acrylic tiki pendant and a Hoa Hakananai’a carving from Easter Island!
Have you ever been to the British Museum? What is your favourite exhibit/artifact?