Moral qualms aside, this huge collection of global antiquities, housed in London’s grandest Greek Revival structure, is unmissable for anyone interested in the history of human creativity. If you’re fascinated by ancient Egypt and Sudan, there are seven galleries of artifacts to enjoy, including the Rosetta Stone (taken, as victor’s spoils, from the French in 1801). If you’re passionate about Greece and Rome, there are delightful fragments from two of the ancient wonders of the world, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Temple of Artemis. If Mesopotamia is your thing, there’s more here of value than anywhere outside of Iraq. It’s no surprise that 6 million people visit each year.
One culture the museum doesn’t illuminate, though, is that of the city in which it is found. The British Museum, by its existence, shows us that London was once the capital of a huge empire that collected the shiniest jewels it could lay its hands on and that the results of that empire still resonate. But it doesn’t say much about the history of or life in the capital.
Location: The British Museum is on Great Russell Street, close to four Underground stations: Goodge Street, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road and Holborn.
The Museum of London’s collection hits closer to home, and the heart
Head just over a mile east from the British Museum, though, and you’ll find the Museum of London. Unlike the British Museum, this is not an impressive site. It’s an unwelcoming postwar muddle, with huge brick walls and raised walkways, partly situated on a roundabout in one of London’s grayer spots. Inside, though, it’s wonderful.
Here, this remarkable city’s story is told in fascinating, invigorating detail. From the Romans to the Victorians, from Oliver Cromwell’s death mask to the 2012 Olympic cauldron, it’s here (and, like the British Museum, it’s free to visit). My favorite permanent exhibit, “Expanding City,” details the story of London between 1670 and 1850, when the British capital went from provincial to patrician. It includes a wooden debtor’s cell door from 1750, with graffiti engraved by the poor souls it trapped. That’s human history.
The temporary exhibits at the museum are invariably delightful, like the current “Beasts of London,” which tells the story of the city through the eyes of the animals that have lived here over the centuries (it runs until Jan. 5). It’s a must-see, particularly for those with children. Older visitors might enjoy an exhibit celebrating the Clash, one of London’s archetypal rock bands, which runs from Nov. 15 until April 19.
The museum has another location, the Museum of London Docklands, situated even farther east, close to Canary Wharf. This branch, which details London’s maritime history, includes an exhibit on how the country ascended to global dominance: “London, Sugar & Slavery.”
The main museum aims to move into a new, more elegant home in part of Smithfield Market, London’s historic meat market, by 2024. Change is coming, hopefully for the better. In that and many other ways, the Museum of London perfectly reflects the city it celebrates.
Location: The Museum of London is at 150 London Wall, a short walk from Barbican and St. Paul’s stations. The Docklands branch is at No. 1 Warehouse, West India Quay, near the Westferry and West India stations.
Hawkes is a freelance travel and drinks writer based in London.