The Museum Mile revisited: Part 2

Glass cases (Grant Museum) by IanVisits, on Flickr
Glass cases (Grant Museum) by IanVisits, on Flickr

In the Museum Mile revisited: Part 1, we left Natalie Coe at the British Museum, having rediscovered the Rosetta Stone. Now, she continues her quest to visit all twelve museums on the Museum Mile in one day….

By now it was 1pm and a good time to head back to the Grant Museum. On entering, you are welcomed by some friendly-looking skeletons looming over the second floor balcony. Inside, it very much feels like a teaching collection with chairs and tables in the centre and an area where UCL students and staff can opt to curate small displays on art and science, in line with the Wellcome Collection ethos. Attempts to engage with the public are also evident and done well, like the QRator project (complete with iPads for visitors to use) and the opportunity to ‘adopt’ your very own animal or specimen. I won’t reveal the chosen object for the Grant Museum, but let’s just say it is so odd that it apparently made Darwin question the existence of God!

Outside again, passing several blue plaques, I made my way to the next stop. This museum was a far cry from the publicly accessible atmospheres of the first five; I had trouble finding the entrance and on entering needed a visitor pass from the security guards. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised that you can visit this very grand building, the Freemason Museum, at any time. The curator (and podcast narrator) here, Mark Dennis, is not a Freemason, which may surprise those who think of this organisation as a secretive sect. He chooses to discuss an 18th century ‘Freemason lodge in a bottle’. At first glance, it looks like an earnest portrayal of a Freemason lodge in action, but the curator speculates that the maker was probably mocking the lodge master by depicting him as very short and with wildly red bushy hair, helpfully highlighting the human side of the Freemasons, which I would not have thought about otherwise. However, I still couldn’t refrain from worrying that people would be suspicious of my note-taking!

Back out on the street, I headed to the London Transport Museum. With all the free museums in London, the £13.50 entrance charge was a bit surprising, but the museum could certainly provide a whole day’s entertainment; I spent my fleeting visit frustrated that I didn’t have longer to clamber on the buses or drive a tube train. The colourful entrance is excellently designed too, and full of examples of underground systems from all over the world that make you question to what extent maps are based on geography and how much their design is cultural or arbitrary. However, as Oliver Green points out on the podcast, London is the only city defined by its transport. Nowhere else has such iconic transport symbols as the underground sign, black cabs, red buses or the user friendly but geographically inaccurate tube map. The cafe and shop are also lovely places to visit if you want a snapshot of what’s in the museum without having to pay! I’ll definitely be back.

Institution number 8 was a far cry from the interactive London Transport museum and very much an art collection – the Courtauld gallery. As Tim Marlow says, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a world famous tourist destination with all its Botticellis, Van Goghs, Renoirs and Gauguins. But the Courtauld is better known as a teaching collection. Indeed, Marlow comically describes his own experience of classes there – he was shown some slides by a lecturer which caught fire and immediately turned into an example of abstract expressionism! The highlighted piece on the podcast is suitably famous, but I was helped to see it in a new light. The celebrity nature of the pieces on display does have the adverse effect of making you feel like a heathen for just running in to look at one painting while ignoring the rest of this important collection! The good news is, it’s free on Monday mornings, so I can come back for a less sacrilegious visit soon.

I was getting to grips with navigating by now and the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons felt easier to find than I had anticipated; it’s such a pleasure getting to know London’s streets. We often suggest the Hunterian for Wellcome Collection visitors expecting a more traditional medical museum with pickled body parts in jars, but I had never actually visited myself. As expected, there were lots of things in jars – at random I spotted the ovaries, kidney and impregnated oviducts of a viper – and the content is accordingly quite old fashioned, but the design and layout of the collection is impressively modern. It also felt great to be in a working institution that serves a purpose way beyond housing a museum and therefore had a ‘behind the scenes’ feeling, just like the Freemason building.

My next famous narrator was Stephen Fry who introduces one of his favourite places, the Sir John Soane’s museum. The home of Sir John Soane is the ultimate time capsule and has a fantastically eccentric collection of curios, including an Ancient Egyptian coffin that John Soane outbid the British Museum for, from an eccentric circus strongman-cum-archaeologist called Giovanni Belzoni. Be warned, this beautiful house is very atmospheric and potentially quite spooky, though this didn’t seem to have daunted the animated house stewards or the students sketching in the many dark shadows of the burial crypt.

Sadly, having only just squeezed through the last entry at the Sir John Soane’s museum at 4.30pm, I found I was too late to reach my final destinations of the Charles Dickens Museum and the Foundling Museum. I was surprisingly upset at being unable to complete the Museum Mile quest. Forlornly listening to the audio segments for the Dickens and Foundling museums, without actually visiting them, just wasn’t the same.

Aside from this absurd consequence of feeling like I’d ‘failed’ in some way, I thought the day had been a success. I would argue ten museums in a day is still an achievement, as well as being a fun way to make a proper adventure out of museum going – I had battled against the February cold, sprained my hand through frantic note taking and lost one pair of earmuffs along the way. On reflection, the Museum Mile podcast, while perhaps not complementary to a social outing, is perfect for a solo day trip. I had enjoyed a lovely walk in the fresh air, been introduced to unfamiliar objects in familiar museums and finally made those trips to the smaller museums, like the Grant Museum, that I had always been meaning to visit. Also, I have subsequently overcome my personal aversion to audio guides and very much look forward to using them more in future, starting with the Wellcome Collection ones in our Medicine Man gallery.

Natalie Coe is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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