If you’ve been in London for a while and haven’t yet spent a couple of days wandering around its biggest and best museums, you’re missing out WORDS Tom Sturrock
So with winter loitering with intent just around the corner, set aside a rainy afternoon for a spot of museum-going. Here are the Big Five to check out straight off the bat:
Natural History Museum
Overview: Exhibits aside, the building housing the museum is breathtaking, with its ornate Victorian frontage and cavernous entrance hall. So take a few minutes to check out the architecture before immersing yourself in this meticulous catalogue of the natural world.
Must-see: Everyone’s got their favourite animals, and the mammals section makes sure none of them go unaccounted for.
Special attractions: The new Darwin Centre opened in September, and the state-of-the art Cocoon building is the hottest ticket in town.
» Cromwell Rd, SW7 5BD Tube: South Kensington (nhm.ac.uk). Daily, 10am-5.30pm
Imperial War Museum
Overview: The museum’s emphasis is on the two world wars, and if you need to brush up your European history this is the perfect place to start, providing a crash course in the origins of both great wars. Or, if you just like guns, tanks and fighter planes, you’ll also go home satisfied.
Must-see: The Secret War exhibition focuses on the world of espionage, featuring bottles of invisible ink and an Enigma cipher machine.
Special attractions: The Holocaust Exhibition looks at the way Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews. Grim stuff, and it stays with you.
» Lambeth Rd, SE1 6HZ Tube: Lambeth North (london.iwm.org.uk). Daily, 10am-6pm
Overview: The building itself is spectacular, with a colossal opaque dome at its centre. You know it’s a serious museum when you stumble across the Rosetta Stone in the foyer. The ideal spot for a lazy stroll through antiquity.
Must-see: In Assyria in 720BC, King Sargon’s citadel was guarded by a pair of giant human-headed winged bull statues. Now they’re here. Awesome.
Special attractions: Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler is currently exhibiting, and spectacularly sketches the last days of Aztec civilisation in the 1500s.
» Great Russell St, WC1B 3DG Tube: Tottenham Court Road (britishmuseum.org). Sat-Wed, 10am-5.30pm; Thu-Fri, 10am-8.30pm
Victoria & Albert Museum
Overview: The world’s largest museum of arts and design fuses everyday quirkiness with the truly arcane. For example, in a retrospective on women’s fashion, medieval corsetry appears alongside a J-Lo style velour tracksuit.
Must-see: The V&A’s sculpture collection is incredible – one of the current highlights is the gallery of dazzling Buddhist pieces.
Special attractions: The Maharaja exhibition brings together pieces from India’s Royal Court, and there’s some serious bling on show.
» Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL Tube: South Kensington (vam.ac.uk). Daily, 10am-5.45pm (Fri, till 10pm)
Overview: Remember when you were little and you were really interested in how stuff worked? The Science Museum taps into that child-like curiosity, ensuring you’ll spend hours marvelling at the ingenuity of your fellow man.
Must-see: The Energy Hall will get petrolheads revved up, with industrial engines that could easily be from a mad inventor’s workshop.
Special attractions: Cosmos & Culture is on currently, examining how astronomy changed our view of the universe and ourselves.
» Exhibition Rd, SW7 2DD Tube: South Kensington (sciencemuseum.org.uk). Daily, 10am-6pm
London’s smaller, niche museums
Fun yet poignant comic art.
» Little Russell St, WC1A 2HH Tube: Tottenham Court Road (cartoonmuseum.org)
Royal Air Force Museum
Over 100 planes on show.
» Colindale, NW9 5LL Tube: Colindale (rafmuseum.org.uk)
Museum Of London
Centuries of fascinating and quirky history brought to life.
» London Wall, EC2Y 5HN Tube: Barbican (museumoflondon.org.uk)
London Transport Museum
The story of the world’s most famous trains and buses
» Wellington St, WC2E 7BB Tube: Covent Garden (ltmuseum.co.uk)
Museum Of London Docklands
London’s proud (and murky) maritime heritage
» Hertsmere Rd, E14 4AL Tube: Canary Wharf (museumindocklands.org.uk)
The Elgin Marbles
The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum are classical Greek sculptures, originally part of the Parthenon in Athens but acquired (ahem) by the Brits in 1812. Ever since then, the Greeks have been trying to get them back to Athens.
Lesley Fitton, the museum’s Keeper of the Greek and Roman Department, insists the Marbles serve a broader audience in the UK: ”You have to question whether every antiquity should go back to where it was found, because that would fragment the great collections wherever they exist: in London, New York, Paris.”