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A taste of the Museum Mile

The Museum Mile
The Museum Mile

Wellcome Collection is just one of the newest additions to a part of London crammed with museums both big and small. Natalie Coe set off to find out how many she could visit in a day…

Whilst Henry Wellcome was keen to showcase his dazzling collection of artefacts, the primary purpose of his collection was to aid future scientific research and a comprehensive understanding of man. His original target audience was, therefore, medical experts, scientific researchers and other people ‘of import’, not necessarily the ordinary members of the public that wander into Wellcome Collection today. Nowadays, the latest manifestation of Henry’s ambitions for a ‘museum of man’ is well and truly on the map for tourists and curious locals alike. In fact, its prominent position on London’s Euston Road means that it is even on the ‘Museum Mile’ map – a handy guide to 12 publicly accessible museums within one mile of each other stretching from Euston Road down to the Strand. It is particularly handy for us Visitor Services Assistants on Mondays when Wellcome Collection galleries are closed and we need to appease disappointed visitors with other ideas for their day out! But last week I decided it was about time I made use of the leaflet in the way it was intended and embarked on Museum Mile myself.

12 museums in a day seems somewhat ambitious and potentially overwhelming but local organisation Inmidtown offers a day’s walking tour of all the museums so it must be doable. On reflection, it doesn’t actually dictate that you have to do them all in one go. But is the guide useful for those with a measly couple of hours spare as I had? I figured my time restrictions were fairly representative of a busy Londoners’ life and therefore that it was worth finding out.

The adventure began at the British Library, number 1 on the map. Firstly, I visited their current exhibition ‘Evolving English’. I was not concerned with getting a comprehensive overview or missing out on things as I was conscious of time constraints; instead I headed straight past all the crowds to a fun looking quiz exhibit. Through this I immediately managed to learn some very interesting facts. For example, that the cockney rhyming slang for teeth is Hampstead Heath; that the first dictionary was produced in the 17th century; and that sofa, jar, admiral and algebra are all Arabic words. Language seems a difficult thing to exhibit (in a different way to something provocative like High Society), but the number of texts on display were well dispersed amongst engaging interactive displays. I also had time to turn the pages of a virtual version of William Blake’s notebook in the foyer and stick my head in the ‘Growing knowledge: impact of social media’ room. This was a reminder that the British Library is primarily seen as a place for research, but the sunny courtyard was full of all sorts of people taking lunch breaks from both study and day-tripping alike. The library is an impressive building too, worth contemplating further but time was of the essence and I had already filled my allotted 20 minutes so time for museum number two.

According to the leaflet, the British Museum was next. This was a bit baffling given it was not geographically next on the route but I dutifully made my way to Great Russell Street. In retrospect, the numbers are probably referring to the podcast and I should have followed my common sense to Wellcome Collection or the UCL collections first. But still, I had had my eye on a t-shirt there and that was enough motivation to continue. The walk there was very pleasant, past The Place, which I had always wondered how to get to, and down Woburn Walk, a lovely street I recognised from a Wellcome Collection guided walk. London really is best experienced by foot, especially given its organic structure of windy streets, nooks and crannies. The extent to which Londoners walk, or at least use public transport, also has the ironic benefit of making city-dwellers ‘greener’ than those in the countryside (as discussed in the book accompanying our current Dirt exhibition). Next, I enjoyed sauntering through the green Tavistock square gardens and Russell Square, both seemingly full of students doing film-making projects. I had to try not to stop and people-watch too much in fear of turning a Museum trip into ethnographic fieldwork! I wondered at this point how much Museum Mile was about the museums and how much it was simply a great way to get out and about, rediscover some London streets and be reminded how green the city is for a bustling metropolis. Additionally, I loved wandering about with a notebook in hand as if I was somewhere new and exotic, not just in the backyard of where I work and live.

Unlike me, most of the hundreds of people I could see as I approached the British Museum did appear to be tourists or, more specifically, massive school groups with matching tabards and frantic teachers. Inside, the British Museum was looking as beautifully majestic as always and worth a visit for its domed glass ceiling alone. After marvelling at the architecture, I headed straight to buy the aforementioned t-shirt and see if I could find any Museum Mile leaflets, which I couldn’t. Perhaps somewhere as big as the British Museum doesn’t need to be in a Museum Mile leaflet! Still pressed for time I dived into a small exhibition on Sikh fortress turbans that caught my eye and was impressed by the contemporary audio accounts of Sikh turban wearers.

I was by now feeling the pressure of cramming so much culture in before work and left for the next destination: Brunei Gallery at SOAS. On approaching, however, I had a hunch that my plans to visit might be scuppered. From quite a distance I could see banners hanging from the surrounding university buildings and was reminded of the current occupation in protest at government cuts. As I got closer I sensed an almost party-like atmosphere and my hunch was confirmed as I saw a picket line in front of the doors to the Brunei gallery. I wasn’t expecting my first confrontation with a picket line to be while attempting Museum Mile! Some people were entering the building but it felt a bit inappropriate for me to go in just to tick another museum off the list, so I sat outside for a bit and gazed enviously at the people who had time to join the massive queue for free food from the Hare Krishna stall. I wonder if the Brunei Gallery would have been as interesting as all the commotion outside? The contrast between London’s vibrant hustle and bustle and the quiet sanctuary of its smaller museums is always quite remarkable.

Unfazed, my next stop was the Charles Dickens museum, a museum I hadn’t been to before. I had so far been fine with fleeting trips to museums I already knew (and that were free!) but the thought of rushing a visit to a new one was rather traumatic so I really wanted to make the most of this one. The walk here again took me past a lovely green space: Coram’s Fields – a fantastic community facility and an interesting historic site linked to the Foundling Museum, also on Museum Mile. Before arriving at the Dickens museum, I succumbed to a detour to a nearby cafe called the Espresso Room which I had found using another handy leaflet that recommends the best places for coffee in London. So two ‘box-ticking’ exercises collided; I could now tick off numbers 1–3 of the museums and number 8 on the coffee map! It seems absurd to reduce a day out to a ‘to-do list’ but in this case, I found the structured adventure rather enjoyable; perhaps such box ticking lends itself more to areas that you thought you already knew and need forcing to explore more. Walking around London also seemed to make you more open to conversations with strangers – I ended up spending quite a while chatting over coffee, longer than strict adherence to Museum Mile would allow for! There was, therefore, not enough time for me to do justice to the Dickens museum and unfortunately this is where my small taster of Museum mile ended.

This was a only a brief introduction to Museum Mile but it served to illustrate what a good resource it is for getting you out and about and seeing things you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, like picket lines! Personally, I find it more appealing for re-visiting museums I’m already familiar with than for facilitating a whistle stop tour of a new museum. But I’m sure the walking tour or hour long downloadable podcast would offer more than enough insight about particular objects to make a visit feel suitably in-depth. Besides, I managed to get more from each museum in the allotted 20 minutes than I had anticipated. Though there is a slight risk of museum fatigue, Museum Mile is an exciting way to experience museums in a new context; in relation to each other, as well as in the context of the local area or community, instead of just as a solitary institution. And while it is potentially stressful or counter-productive to visit museums just for the sake of getting through a list, it does take you off the beaten track and into the smaller museums like the UCL collections or Sir John Soane’s that I can’t wait to go back and visit. Of course, you don’t have to stick to the leaflet religiously anyway. Perhaps it works best if you use it as a starting point, or inspiration for taking advantage of the wealth of culture that these museums offer to the public in a way that Henry Wellcome didn’t consider! So you don’t need to feel bad about spending some time in the shop or having coffee with a stranger en route.

Natalie Coe is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.