Curious about what those stuck in London over the summer but keen to avoid the Olympics might do, I decided to visit a few museums to check out various free tourist attractions. I started with the John Soame Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on Thursday afternoon (5 July 2012). I used to visit this museum dedicated to the life and work of architect and collector John Soame a lot when I was in my late-teens and early-twenties. Back in the day you could just walk in but now you’re greeted by a door-person and have to hand in any luggage that is much more than handbag size. There was a small queue when I arrived but it only took a couple of minutes to get in. By the time you read this a new circulation system involving a separate entrance and exit will have been introduced – but I missed it by a whisker (one day) and until 6 July 2012 y0u went in and came out through the same door. The museum occupies the large townhouse that John Soame lived in when he was alive. The biggest attractions for me are works by Piranesi and Hogarth but the whole building is packed with weird shit – making it one of the best free visits in London.
On Thursday afternoon I also went to the British Museum in Great Russell Street, since it is just a short walk from the John Soame Museum. I wanted to see the old British Library reading room which I used to use regularly when i was researching my early books. Unfortunately this part of the British Museum was closed – but luckily it isn’t difficult to get into the British Library at it’s new location at St Pancras. As a child my favourite bit of the British Museum was the extensive ancient Egyptian collections on parts of the ground and first floor. These were so packed with tourists it was difficult to enjoy the displays. Aside from the crowds there was also the distraction of constant flash photography – it beats me why people are endless snapping photographs of a well documented collection! I’d say avoid the The British Museum, it is way too crowded to enjoy.
On Friday I went to the Museum of London at London Wall. This takes visitors through 2000 years of London history and provides hours of fun. I hadn’t been to this museum for a couple of years. The displays start with the landscape of London before London was built: including such curious facts as The Thames being a tributary of The Rhine when The British Isles was joined to the European mainland; and that a giant glacier shifted the river south and created the Thames Valley as we have it today. Roman London and the ruination of the ancient city follows before we move on into the Saxon and medieval eras. There are groovy displays on The Black Death and The Great Fire Of London… and even a recreation of The Vauxhall Pleasure Garden! There is also plenty of Victoriana for those that dig that kinda stuff but to my eyes the history of the past 60 or so years is considerably more far-out! The Museum of London was busy but not overcrowded – and I’d say is definitely worth a visit.
On Saturday afternoon I went to Tate Modern on Bankside and it was very difficult to enjoy anything in the main galleries due to the crowds. I’d say make an effort to avoid most of Tate Modern unless you’re looking to pick up a new boyfriend or girlfriend – in which case visit between 6pm and 1opm on a Friday or Saturday for their late-night opening (which they really ought to advertise as a speed dating service). The best part of Tate Modern – and the only part I found empty- was the Level 2 Project Space (for ‘emerging’ international art), and you can get into that from Bankside without going into the main part of the building.
On Sunday afternoon I went to The Imperial War Museum on Lambeth Road – which I had previously only visited once when I was about eight years-old. It wasn’t too crowded and the circulation was pretty good. Mostly the museum is dedicated to a history of warfare (and the cold war) from the past 100 years and an Anglo-American perspective. Can’t say I’m very interested in tanks, guns, war planes, military uniforms etc. But there is also an extensive display about how World War II impacted on the lives of one working class south London family. So for the social history it encompasses I’d say The Imperial War Museum is probably worth a visit- as long as you can put up with a few nerds walking around in combat jackets and fatigue trousers (at least one of the tossers I clocked matching this description appeared to be a very sad Laibach fan; but then I guess everyone who likes pop acts such as Laibach is very sad).
I have left aside the glaringly obvious here – which would include avoid visiting Westfield Shopping Centre, Oxford Street and similar locations. It should go without saying that public transport should be avoided as far as possible too – travel in London during the 2012 Olympics should be made on foot or by bicycle.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!