London Museums

The Origins of London Museums
John Tradescant's Ark

London's First Museum

The first Museum in Britain was John Tradescant's Ark in Lambeth.  The Tradescants (father and son) were plant hunters and collector's of Curiosities. The Museum included natural history objects as well as antiquities, and ethnography.  The collection was eventually, and somewhat controversially, inherited by Elias Ashmole, who set up the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford using Tradescant's Ark.  

The Tradescants are buried in St. Mary-At-Lambeth which is now the Museum of Garden History.  Their tomb is fascinating, and found in the midst of the Museum's beautiful replica Knot Garden.


The World's First National Museum
The British Museum

Sir Hans Sloane and the Foundation of the British Museum

The world's first great National Museum was created from another great collection of Curiosities.  The 18th Century Physician Sir Hans Sloane stored his collection in his house in Chelsea, once the home of Henry VIII. On his death the Government set up a Lottery to purchase the collection and house it at Montague House in Bloomsbury. The Sloane Collection now forms the core of the three branches of the British Museum: the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the British Library.

Many of the other great London Museums were founded at the height of the British Empire.. The magnificence of these foundations give an insight into the power, influence and self-confidence of 19th Century Britain. The late 20th Century State has found it impossible to maintain the Museums properly out of public funds and so Museums are now increasingly turning to private sponsorship, and improving their service to the public as they fight for 'market share'.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Prince Albert and the Museums of South Kensington

South Kensington is home to an amazing array of institutions - the V&A, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, The Royal College of Art, Imperial College, the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Organists, the Albert Hall, the Royal Geographical Society and the National Sound Archive. Their origins are to be found in the Great Exhibition of 1851 when Prince Albert set up a Museum of Manufactures to house the best objects purchased from the Exhibition. The Exhibition hosted 6m visitors in 5 months and made a profit of £180,000. The money was invested in the purchase of the land to the south of the Festival site in Hyde Park. The Commissioners of the Great Exhibition are still sitting today and have made possible one of the greatest concentrations of arts and science institutions in the world.

The area was once nicknamed Albertopolis and Albert insisted that projects using the land should be useful to the public and provide educational access to the masses. The idea of the new museum was entirely practical - its theme was the 'application of Fine Art to Manufactures'. The first director was Henry Cole, a small ball of energy, who was followed around the Museum by his yapping dog (The dog was buried in what is now the Pirelli Garden in the centre of the Museum). The original buildings were the 'Brompton Boilers' an immense structure of corrugated iron and steel which Prince Albert suggested should be painted with Green and White stripes in order to lighten up the oppressive buildings. The 'boilers' are alive and well and form the Bethnal Green But the link between art and science weakened over the years, the museum became known as the Museum of Ornamental Art, the South Kensington Museum, and then the Victoria and Albert Museum. Recently, the flamboyant director, Sir Roy Strong, added a subtitle 'The National Museum of Decorative Art and Design', to try to establish its purpose to the public and to restore the link between art and science.

When you arrive at the Museum go straight to the Pirelli Gardens and look at the buildings around the square which show the original South Kensington style. The four sides of the square were built at different times by Fowke and Scott. The original entrance is through the beautiful door at the far side whose panels symbolize the link between the arts and sciences. The designs on the walls are by Sykes, Gamble and Townroe. The three horizontal divisions represent the Ages of Man. On the pediment is Queen Victoria distributing Laurel crowns in front of the Crystal Palace.

Next find your way to the Cast Courts Rooms. Room 46A has been restored to the sumptuous Victorian interior decoration, and its plaster casts of such huge monuments as Trajan's Column and the porch of the Cathedral of Santiago Del Compostello must be seen to be believed. These casts illustrate the amazing energy of the Victorians. Next, find the Ceramic Staircase (room 11) where you will find more original Victorian designs, and a portrait of Sir Henry Cole. Back down the stairs, through the Italian renaissance gallery (looking at a few Donatello's as you go) (rooms 13 and 15) enter the Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms. This was at the old front entrance and shows how the first Director commissioned architecture worthy of the contents of the Museum. The Green Dining Room is by Morris with paintings by Burne- Jones. The central refreshment room is now known as the Gamble Room, after its designer. The ecletric mix of Arabian, classical, renaissance and modern features was abhorred until recently, but now we can appreciate a truly stunning interior. Note the quotation around the top of the walls, and the mouthwatering quotations on the window. The Poynter room or Dutch Kitchen includes the grill, in which chops and steaks were cooked, note the attractive representations of the seasons around the walls.

Finally, walk via Rooms 11, 12, and Tippoo's Tiger.

The Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is a Cathedral to education. Its architecture is a stunning statement of the power of the Victorian people and a monument to the belief in the powers of education. It is one of the greatest buildings in London now that it has been cleaned of its polluted black covering.

In 1860 the British Museum decided to transfer its natural history collection from the main building in Bloomsbury. Land was granted for the project by from the Commissioners of the Great Exhibition, and Captain Francis Fowke won the competition for the new building. Unfortunately, he died shortly after and was replaced by Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse tended towards the historicist Gothic style of architecture, but compromised to fit with the prevailing South Kensington Style by basing the building on the Romanesque and using terra-cotta tiles for the walls. Behind the facade the building was ultramodern with its large halls built of iron, steel and glass, and its cleverly disguised water towers. The glory of the building is the immense number of carvings of the flora and fauna of the world in imitation of medieval cathedrals.


Other Museums to Visit
The Natural History Museum



An attractive interior cluttered with victoriana and an authentic 'lived in' feel - the Bohemian home of Linley Sambourne - chief cartoonist for Punch.


Built by Royal Academician Lord Leighton with help from his artistic friends. A stunning Victorian version of the mysterious orient.


Built by Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh the Palace is still in use by members of the Royal Family but also contains some of the major court rooms and the royal court dress collection.

Leighton House Linley Sambourne HouseKensington Palace

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Next walks for London Walks are:

Jane Austen's London Pub Tour 4 May 7.15pm Green Park Underground

Pub Crawl up the River Fleet on May 18
London Bridge to Bermondsey on July 13
The Archaeology of London Bridge on July 14
Roman Archaeology and Culture on Aug. 3
Chelsea on Sept. 28
Decline and Fall of Roman London on Sept. 28
Myths and Legends and the Origins of London on Oct. 5City Backstreets on Oct. 5
The City and the Blitz on November 23


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