The Museum Mile revisited: Part 1

Rosetta Stone by skëne, on Flickr
Rosetta Stone by skëne, on Flickr

Last year, Wellcome Collection’s Natalie Coe attempted to visit all twelve museums on the Museum Mile in a single day, but was distracted by student occupiers, good quality espresso and too much culture in general. With greater resolve this year, she set off again…

After my first measly attempt at a two hour version of Museum Mile last year, I recently hit the museum road again on a cold February morning to try it out properly, this time using the Museum Mile’s own downloadable audio guide podcast where various notable narrators shed some light on particular objects in each of the 12 museums featured. Coincidentally, our own new audio guide was launched at Wellcome Collection recently, so it was a good time to be exploring museums via an audio guide.

The podcast introduced Museum Mile as a way to discover the lesser known gems not found in your average guidebook. While I’m not entirely convinced that any of these museums have escaped all guidebooks, it did stay true to its claim to feature big, small, quirky and mainstream museums and inspire me to re-look at museums I thought I’d already ‘done’. The podcast also helpfully guides you on a logical route from one museum to the next, unlike the scheme’s leaflet. I recommend downloading each museum track individually if you’re using a device without a forward or rewind function (unless you want to hear ‘Welcome to Museum Mile’ one too many times)!

The first stop was the ‘Cathedral of Knowledge’, the British Library, with my first guide, David Starkey. I love the ‘cathedral’ description: there is currently much discussion over whether museums are the new temples where people come to worship art and objects. After marvelling at the central old Royal library, Mr Starkey introduced me to the 13th century Magna Carta. Could there be a more famous object to begin with? I admittedly had no idea it was there and had never been in the John Ritblatt ‘treasures’ gallery that holds it, so it was wonderful to be directed to an object that Starkey described as no less than the ‘beginning of liberty and freedom’. And the British Library display was great at demonstrating how monumental it was in reining in the power of the King. It also conveyed the more mundane nuggets of interest, like how words were abbreviated to save on expensive parchment. It is interesting to think about how it was re-interpreted, too; from applying only to ‘free men’ to being used to call for the right to a free trial for all men. Amazingly, it’s still cited in courtrooms today and a copy sits proudly alongside the Bill of Rights in Washington.

So already I’d discovered something new in a place I’d visited before. On to the next destination and the discovery that the podcast punctuates your walk between institutions with little facts about the area. Did you know that the Euston Road was the first urban bypass in Europe?

The second museum was somewhere you would think I’d already seen from every angle, the Wellcome Collection. But the podcast proved me wrong. I was delighted to hear my place of work described as an elegant respite; perhaps the contrast of Euston Road actually enhances the visitor experience. Francis Wells, a heart scientist and artist, described an illuminated manuscript in the Wellcome Library which I hadn’t come across before despite the fact that it sat by Queen Elizabeth I’s bed. Objects with such celebrity associations always raise the question: does their value come from aesthetics or their provenance? I would vouch for celebrity provenance if the success of our Wellcome’s Hall of Fame tour is anything to go by!

So far so good. But the next museum proved more problematic: the Grant Museum is only open 1-5pm and it was still the morning. (I thought this implied Museum Mile was not meant to take all day but this later proved to be wishful thinking!) So I skipped onto the Brunei Gallery at SOAS instead. Last time I was here, I was stopped in my quest by a picket line of protestors, so I was pleased that I could actually go in. On the way there, Aly Mir, indmidtown’s walks guide, informed us that the area’s famous Bloomsbury group was known for living in squares but loving in triangles – a reference to their complicated sexual relationships! The SOAS collections are accurately described as ‘extensive, diverse, and surprising’. Nonetheless, it was satisfying to just be looking for one specific object, an approach I’ve not really taken before. In this case, a missionary portrait of David Livingstone that John Hollingworth, from the Brunei Gallery, explained was routine for missionaries who weren’t necessarily expected to make it home. He also shed some light on the origins of the phrase ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, but I’d better not give the whole of the podcast away…

Back outside I battled through the cold to my next stop, the biggest and most ‘mainstream’ institution on my route, the British Museum.

I was, as always, in awe of the magnificent Grand Court at the heart of this epic building, even more so with the acquired knowledge from the podcast that it is the largest covered square in Europe. Having recently taken a ‘highlights’ approach to the British Museum with relatives visiting from abroad, I was hesitant to go again to see perhaps the most famous object there, the Rosetta Stone. Also, as Grayson Perry referenced in his exhibition ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’, Ancient Egyptian collections are almost too famous – it is the first thing that children learn to associate with the museums and he sometimes ‘dread[s] seeing the crumbling stage sets of popular imagination’. But my resistance proved unwarranted as I was delighted to actually be able to see the Rosetta Stone this time, away from the weekend crowds. Plus, for the first time, I really understood how important it was in unlocking Ancient Egyptian culture. I found having someone ‘bringing alive’ the object for me on the podcast conveyed a far more memorable message than reading the label on the wall.

We must leave Natalie here for now. Will she succeed in her ambition of visiting all twelve museums in one day? All will be revealed in Part 2…

Natalie Coe is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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