Everybody knows the big three Kensington museums – the V&A, more properly the Victoria & Albert), the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum (actually there used to be four – the Geology Museum made up the original number, but it has now been folded into the Natural History Museum).
Victorian ideas of progress and the popularisation of science and technology led to the creation of the triumvirate; the V&A was originally set up as a source of design ideas and craft technique for British manufacturers, rather than a fine art museum, hence its concentration on such areas as metalworking, furniture, porcelain, and textiles, rather than painting.
I adore the V&A. It’s a maze of a museum – I’m sure there’s a gallery somewhere in it that isn’t on any of the maps, and I’ve got lost in the corridors of wrought ironwork and the little dark interior rooms more times than I can count – and it always has a surprise for me. From Italian renaissance terracottas to 1920s flapper dresses, from ancient Persian carpets to Japanese samurai swords, its collections illustrate the material culture of pretty much the entire globe and are a never failing source of ideas for any artist or writer.
The big attraction of the Science Museum is its hands-on interactive exhibits. It even has its own IMAX cinema showing films about science. While I’m sure the interactive displays are intended for schoolchildren, I am certainly enough of a big kid to enjoy them (though if you visit during termtime, you may not be able to get anywhere near the exhibits). There are displays focusing on medicine and high tech, but I particularly like ‘Making the modern world’, a wide-ranging display that includes not just Stephenson’s Rocket (unmissable for anyone who has ever felt the romance of the steam engine), the Apollo 10 command module, a VW Beetle, and Tracy the transgenic ewe, but also “a table-top coin operated football goal-scoring machine”. How can you resist?
These museums aren’t just worthwhile for the exhibits. Their architecture is remarkable, too, making them into secular temples to enshrine knowledge and scholarship. Architect Alfred Waterhouse borrowed his ideas for the Natural History Museum from Romanesque cathedrals, and it’s truly impressive both inside and out, with its huge arches, turrets, and the massive hall given over to dinosaur skeletons.
Exhibits here range from the massive (tyrannosaurus rex and the 91 foot long blue whale, and Archie the giant squid, nearly 9 metres long) to the tiny (all kind of bugs and creepy crawlies, and a wonderful collection of gemstones). But unfortunately my favourite attraction is out of order – there will be “no earthquakes or volcanoes at the Museum,” says one of the more intriguingly headed news pieces I’ve seen recently, as the gallery containing the earthquake simulator is undergoing restoration. It will reopen in January 2014 though.
Concierge tip: Why not combine a visit to these big Kensington museums (a short trip from The Beaufort) with one of our special hotel deals.
This is a guest post by Andrea Kirkby.