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Arts and culture in London

The British Museum

Arts and Culture London

The British Museum is one of the World’s oldest museums, first opened in 1759

With more than 850 art galleries and around 200 museums to visit, Londoners don’t have to travel far to soak up some culture. It’s perfectly understandable then that the UK’s capital is often considered the cultural capital of the world. In fact, in 2017 London was named museum capital of the world – in joint place with Washington DC – thanks to four of its museums being listed among the top most visited worldwide. Many of the most popular museums can be found in a cluster in an area of South Kensington, so if you want to visit as many as possible in a short period of time, head for the aptly-named Exhibition Road, where you will find some of the city’s must famous cultural learning facilities.

The British Museum in Great Russell Street, was voted London’s most popular cultural hotspot with around 6.4 million visitors but don’t let the crowds put you off. As one of the world’s oldest museums, having first opened in 1759, its collections comprise millions of objects, so vast that only a fraction can be put on public display at any one time. The museum has 10 curatorial and research departments covering geographical regions, periods of time and types of artefacts, but the most famous of its exhibits are undoubtedly the Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone and the Anglo-Saxon ship burial from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk – one of the most spectacular and important discoveries in British archaeology.

The various short-term exhibitions mean there’s always something different to see at the British Museum, no matter how many times you may have visited. However, there are also a number of permanent exhibitions on display including the Enlightenment Gallery, which features around 5,000 objects chosen to cast light on the period when the British Museum was founded by an Act of Parliament. It is displayed in the restored former King’s Library, a huge neoclassical room built in the 1820s to house the books collected by George III. When it comes to art, whether you love Old Masters or contemporary works, modern sculpture or Impressionist paintings, London has an art gallery to suit you. The National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, comes next on the list of London’s most famous art galleries and eighth globally. Founded in 1824 to display a collection of just 36 paintings, today the National Gallery is home to more than 2,000 works, with masterpieces from virtually every European school of art.

The modern Sainsbury Wing extension contains the gallery’s earliest works including Italian paintings by early masters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca, while its basement is the setting for more temporary exhibitions. Titian’s masterpiece is in the West Wing, along with other Italian Renaissance paintings by Correggio and Raphael and in the North Wing, 17th-century Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish old masters can be found. In the East Wing (reached via the street-level entrance in Trafalgar Square) are some of the gallery’s most popular paintings, such as works by the French Impressionists and post-Impressionists including one of Monet’s waterlily paintings and one of Van Gogh’s sunflowers series. Free guided tours provide further insight into the pieces on display but beware, there is a lot to take in so you’re unlikely to see everything in just one day, particularly if you want to make a pit-stop at the cafe or National Dining Rooms while you’re there.

With more than 850 art galleries and around 200 museums to visit, Londoners don’t have to travel far to soak up some culture

The National Portrait Gallery and The Natural History Museum

Arts and Culture London

Visit the amazing exhibits at the Natural History Museum

Also near Trafalgar Square, The National Portrait Gallery is home to the world’s largest collection of portraits from Tudor times to the present day including icons, such as Shakespeare and kings and queens from times gone by. It also happens to have one of the best rooftop restaurants in London with views stretching from Nelson’s Column down Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye. London also has its fair share of contemporary art to share with visitors and there’s no doubt that the Tate Modern – London’s third most popular museum and number 10 on the world-wide list – is the best place to start. Hailed as the world’s most popular contemporary art museum, the gallery, on Millbank, attracts millions of visitors a year. In June 2016, a £260m extension was opened to help cope with the ever-increasing visitor numbers, which in recent years has led to overcrowding. The original building was built after the First World War as Bankside Power Station and was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of Battersea Power Station. The power station shut in 1981 and re-opened nearly 20 years later as an art museum.

Named the Switch House, the new building is a piece of artwork in itself. The twisted, off-kilter tower features an exterior of latticed brickwork and folded surfaces, while its interior includes an assortment of over ground and underground galleries, as well as a new roof terrace offering panoramic views of the city. Beneath the Switch House is a space formerly occupied by the power station’s oil tanks and stages live performances and film art. In the main building, the original cavernous turbine hall is still used to jaw-dropping effect as the home of large-scale, temporary installations, while the permanent collection has been expertly curated and draws from the Tate’s collections of modern art featuring the likes of Matisse, Rothko and Beuys.

For more contemporary art, head over to Chelsea where you will find Charles Saatchi’s fabulous collection of artwork, which includes pieces by young and international artists that are rarely exhibited in the UK. Famous exhibitions have included a Rolling Stones tribute, which took over the entire gallery and featured rare and previously-unseen artefacts including original stage designs, dressing room and backstage paraphernalia from live tours, rare guitars, iconic costumes and personal correspondence from Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards.

With more than 4.6 million visitors per year, the Natural History Museum is the UK’s fourth most popular museum and the world’s 13th. Both a research institution and a fabulous museum, it was opened in Alfred Waterhouse’s purpose-built Romanesque palazzo in 1881. Now joined by the splendid Darwin Centre extension, the original building still looks quite magnificent; the pale blue and terracotta façade just about prepares you for the natural wonders within. The magnificent cast of a diplodocus skeleton, which had until January 2017 spanned the full length of the vast entrance hall for over 100 years, has been replaced by a blue whale skeleton while ‘dippy’ goes on a four-year tour of the UK. However, you can still see the animatronic dinosaurs in the museum’s Blue Zone. There’s also a biology display, which features an illuminated, man-sized model of a foetus in the womb along with graphic diagrams of how it might have got there, a Creepy Crawlies exhibition and ‘From the Beginning’, which attempts to give the expanse of geological time a human perspective.

The museum has an extraordinary collection of 22 million insect and plant specimens, which takes up nearly 17 miles of shelving. Every winter, the museum also premieres the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition before it tours more than 60 cities in the UK and across the world. If the Natural History Museum has whet your appetite for learning, then the Science Museum is also worth a visit while you’re in the area (it’s just down the road). Featuring seven floors of educational and entertaining exhibits, this museum forms an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical achievements from across the globe.

With more than 4.6 million visitors per year, the Natural History Museum is the UK’s fourth most popular museum and the world’s 13th

The London Transport Museum

Arts and Culture London

You’ll learn a lot at the Imperial War Museum

Perhaps the most spectacular of its exhibitions is Exploring Space, which includes the three metre-high, 600kg Spacelab 2 X-ray telescope, which was flown on British space missions as well as full-scale models of the Huygens Titan probe and Beagle 2 Mars Lander. The museum’s in-house IMAX cinema shows scientific films in 3D, allowing visitors to be surrounded by space or submerged in the depths of the ocean, while the Dana Centre is an adults-only centre for free lectures and performance events on contemporary scientific issues. There’s also the Apollo 10 command module and a flight simulator allowing you to take the controls yourself and perform your very own aerial acrobatics, just like the famous Red Arrows.

From transport in the air to transport on the ground and the London Transport Museum, in Covent Garden, provides a fascinating insight into the city’s transport systems over the years. You’ll learn about the capital’s first licensed public transport – the sedan chair – and the beautifully-painted, horse-drawn omnibus, from 1805, through to the building of the city’s first passenger railway line, from London Bridge to Greenwich, in 1833. On the first floor of the museum you can take a look at the first underground engine (steam-powered) and even climb aboard a wooden Metropolitan Railway coach. You can also learn about Frank Pick, the man responsible for rolling out the London Underground brand, giving each line its own name and character and ensuring the emblematic bar and circle logo became an intrinsic part of London’s visual identity. You’ll find London Transport’s posters – by the likes of Abram Games, Graham Sutherland and Ivon Hitchens – on show throughout the museum including the original tube map by Harry Beck.

There’s also plenty to keep the little ones entertained with a designated ‘All Aboard’ play zone for the under sevens, which includes a fleet of mini vehicles to play on and a selection of dress-up uniforms to become a mechanic, riverboat captain or station announcer! The museum hosts a number of ‘Hidden London’ tours throughout the year, which you can book tickets for and which enable you to explore unused Underground stations and tunnels at various locations across London. These include the lost tunnels under Euston station, the subterranean shelter at Clapham South and Winston Churchill’s secret station at Down Street. Many of London’s underground tunnels were used as air raid shelters during the Second World War. You’ll learn more about this at the Imperial War Museum.

The museum, near Elephant and Castle, had a major refit and re-opened in 2014 to coincide with the centenary of the start of the First World War. The attention-grabbing central hall has terraced galleries with wartime vehicles such as a Snatch Land Rover from Iraq and an Argentine operating table from the Falklands, while guns, tanks and aircraft hang from the ceiling. Note that this museum might not be the best option if you have young children in tow; the Holocaust Exhibition (not recommended for under 14s) traces the history of European anti-Semitism and its nadir in the concentration camps, while the Crimes Against Humanity section (unsuitable for under 16s) is a minimalist space with a film exploring contemporary genocide and ethnic violence.

Did you know that London also had a secret tube line that was once used exclusively by the Royal Mail? London’s hottest new museum opening, The Postal Museum, will enlighten you as to how this ‘mail rail’ was used by Royal Mail to transport post between depots within the city centre after it was established in the late 1920s. Due to advances in technology, the system became redundant in 2003 but has now been re-opened up as a tourist experience, where visitors can learn about the history of the system and take rides through the tunnels on the old mail rail trains. Another of London’s newest museums is dedicated to the city’s – and probably the country’s – most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Ripper tours have always been popular among visitors to London so it’s about time a museum opened in the mysterious killer’s honour. The museum educates visitors on the gruesome murders that took place in east London in 1888 by telling the story from the perspective of six of the women, who were his victims.

From transport in the air to transport on the ground and the London Transport Museum, in Covent Garden, provides a fascinating insight into the city’s transport systems over the years

Popular culture and design icons

Arts and Culture London

Take a stroll around the beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Fans of crime and mystery may also want to pay a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Although not actually at Number 221b, this museum is indeed on Baker Street and imagines what the house would have looked like if the real Holmes and Watson had resided there. But get there early to avoid the crowds – the place is quaint but extremely cosy! As well as being hailed the cultural capital of the world, London is also seen as a leading design capital and budding designers flock here from across the globe to hone their talent. The late celebrated architect and Sterling Prize-winner, Zaha Hadid, chose to come here from Iraq in her early twenties to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, while in 2003, when Nissan moved its design studio from Munich to London, it did so because it considered the city “at the forefront of modern art”. Indeed the first ever design museum was founded in London by Queen Victoria in 1853 and is now the largest museum of decorative arts and design in the world.

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) has some 150 grand galleries containing around 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity including countless pieces of furniture, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, posters, jewellery, metalwork, glass and textiles. Highlights include the seven Raphael Cartoons, painted in 1515 as tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel, the Ardabil Carpet – the world’s oldest and arguably most splendid floor covering – and the Luck of Edenhall, a 13th-century glass beaker from Syria.

The fashion galleries run from 18th-century court dress right up to contemporary chiffon numbers, the architecture gallery has videos, models, plans and descriptions of various styles of building and the famous photography collection holds over 500,000 images. Over the past decade, the V&A has undergone a programme of restoration to safeguard its future for years to come. The FuturePlan transformation has seen the refurbishment of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries, the restoration of the mosaic floors and beautiful stained-glass windows in the 14th to 17th-century sculpture rooms, and the renovation of the ceramics galleries with the addition of an eye-catching bridge. Newer additions include the furniture galleries, an immediate hit on opening in late 2012; the Rapid Response Collection, which features examples of contemporary design and architecture that represent important events and current affairs, and the reopening of the Toshiba Gallery of Japanese Art, which exhibits 550 works from the 6th century to the present day and includes the first-ever Sony Walkman and an origami outfit designed by Issey Miyake.

There are also the Europe 1600 to 1815 galleries, which feature a stunning four-metre long table fountain reconstructed from 18th-century fragments at their core and take a chronological and thematic approach to European clothes, furnishings and other artefacts. In June 2017, the latest extension to the museum – the £55 million Exhibition Road Quarter – was completed, providing a new entrance, courtyard and purpose-built gallery for temporary exhibitions. Having relocated to the striking former Commonwealth Institute building on High Street Kensington at the end of 2016, The Design Museum offers inspiring insights into the world of design with exhibitions exploring the magic of human invention within the fields of fashion, architecture, furniture, graphic, product, transport and digital. But London’s art and culture is not of course confined to its museums. A major contemporary arts programme established in the city in 2003 continues to enthral visitors to Trafalgar Square. Funded by the Mayor of London and supported by Arts Council England, the programme invites world class artists to make astonishing new works for the square’s Fourth Plinth.

The northwest plinth was originally intended to hold an equestrian statue of William IV but remained bare for years due to insufficient funds. After the ownership of Trafalgar Square was transferred from Westminster City Council to the Mayor of London, it was decided that a rolling programme of contemporary artworks should be commissioned. From an iconic marble statue of a heavily pregnant disabled artist to a giant blue cockerel and a skeletal horse structure, London’s Fourth Plinth art project has always provided a controversial modern twist to the traditional landmarks around London’s most famous square. London is also home to four UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Tower of London, Maritime Greenwich, Westminster Palace and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Each of these sites make a great day out for all the family but also provide a fantastic insight into London’s history and how it has been shaped over the years into the centre for arts and culture that it is today.

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) has some 150 grand galleries containing around 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity including countless pieces of furniture, ceramics, sculpture, paintings, posters, jewellery, metalwork, glass and textiles

Live music and comedy

Arts and Culture London

Watch a memorable performance at the O2 Arena

In January 2017 the Charterhouse also opened its doors to the public for the first time since its foundation in 1348. The historic complex, in Kensington, has at various times been a burial ground, monastery, mansion, school and almshouse and entrance is free. Events, such as the London Olympics in 2012, have helped create new venues in the city that can enrich the city’s cultural life. For example, a cultural and education district is being created on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park that will bring together outstanding organisations to showcase exceptional art, dance, history, craft, science, technology and cutting edge design. When complete, the cultural and education district will be made up of two sites on the park, clustered around the iconic Stadium, ArcelorMittal Orbit and London Aquatics Centre with a number of world-class institutions setting up a permanent presence including a new campus for University College London and major new spaces for the V&A Museum and Sadler’s Wells. In the meantime, the park has become an increasingly popular venue for festivals and outdoor music performances (it has hosted family-friendly 80s music festival Let’s Rock London and Hard Rock Calling to name a couple) so it’s worth checking out what’s on while you’re here.

When it comes to music, London has always played host to amazing performance acts from across the globe but when the O2 arena was first opened (now over a decade ago), it really put London on the map. In recent years, the 20,000-capacity stadium has been the first port of call for world-class headline acts, such as Adele, Beyoncé, Lionel Richie and Céline Dion. There are more than 17,000 live music performances a year across London’s 300-plus venues from mammoth rock and pop concerts with full-blown theatrical effects at the O2 or Wembley Arena to classical music performances at the Royal Opera House and Royal Albert Hall. Wilton Music Hall – built in 1743 and the oldest surviving music hall in the world – is also worth a visit. Of course, these large-scale venues don’t only play host to talent from the world of music. From classical ballet to the contemporary, London is known around the world for its fantastic dance shows. Go to the Royal Opera House, Albert Hall or the Coliseum for spectacular ballet productions by companies such as the English National Ballet and enjoy electrifying contemporary dance shows at the Barbican Centre and Sadler’s Wells, which has three theatre venues across London showcasing the best in tango, hip hop, flamenco, contemporary ballet and Bollywood.

London stages host some of the world’s leading plays and musicals, too. The West End is where you’ll find most of the biggest and well-known shows but there is a host of smaller, independently-run theatres throughout the city that are well worth seeking out. Famous long-standing shows include Les Misérables at Queen’s Theatre and The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre, while newer kids on the block are Aladdin at Prince Edward Theatre and An American in Paris at the Dominion Theatre. Then, of course, there are offerings for those who would prefer the actors on stage to not continually break into song. For example, those with a love of The Bard should head to Shakespeare’s Globe beside the Thames in Bankside’s cultural quarter. London also presents more live comedy than any other city in the world. Whatever time of year you happen to be visiting London, you’re bound to find one or more big-name acts, such as Ricky Gervais or Romesh Ranganathan, playing one of the city’s larger arenas.

The Eventim Apollo (formerly the Hammersmith Apollo) and the O2 Academy, in Brixton, are good places to start if you want a good laugh. However, there are a whole host of pubs with backrooms hosting new talent on the comedy circuit, as well as The Comedy Store which, since it opened in Soho in 1979, has acted as a breeding ground for the next generation of young stand-up comedians – Julian Clary, Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard, Steve Coogan and Kevin Bridges have all graced its stage at some point. London is also home to a number of wildly-popular cultural festivals, from Fashion Week and the Film Festival, which take over the entire city once a year, to the music and food festivals that take place in various pockets of the community throughout the year. In fact, around 250 festivals take place across the city every year including London’s annual celebration of the River Thames, the Totally Thames Festival held each September, and Europe’s biggest street festival, the Notting Hill Carnival, which attracts nearly one million people each year.

When it comes to music, London has always played host to amazing performance acts from across the globe but when the O2 arena was first opened (now over a decade ago), it really put London on the map

London Fashion Week and The BFI London Film Festival

Arts and Culture London

Fashion addicts travel from all over the world to attend the shows at London Fashion Week

During London Fashion Week, you’ll see VIPs from the world of couture travel to London from every major fashion capital across the globe. Held in February and September each year (to showcase the spring/summer and autumn/winter collections), London Fashion Week is a huge opportunity to promote British fashion – and its designers – on the world stage. Representing the best of British, the fashion festival features rising stars like Bethany Williams and Nabil Nayal. If you’re in town when it’s on, then watch out for the hordes of glamorously-dressed, sunglasses-clad (rain or shine) fashion bods being ‘papped’ outside the various fashion shows, which are held across London – you may well spot a celebrity or two as well.

This isn’t the only festival to celebrate the city’s fashion talent. From the bowler hat to the tweed jacket, London has been a world leader in men’s fashion for decades and today the city is the beating heart of the UK’s fashion industry. Every January and June London also hosts a week dedicated to the most innovative and international menswear designers. Fashion is not only the talk of the town during London Fashion Week but also when the stars take to the red carpet during the BFI London Film Festival. London is the third busiest city for film-making in the world, behind LA and New York, and hosts over a fifth of the UK’s cinema screens. The city has also provided the backdrop to numerous blockbusters and cult film franchises, from Harry Potter to James Bond. Every October over 230 fiction and documentary films are screened at the film festival, including a number of world premieres.

The event centres on Leicester Square but also branches out to local movie houses all over London and there are also heaps of Q&As and masterclasses with filmmakers, as well as short films, talks and workshops. There are also a number of independently-run film festivals cropping up in London’s outer districts. For example, New Cross & Deptford Film Festival, held in April, offers 32 free screenings across 22 venues in South London – just make sure you get there early to get a seat as it’s first come, first served. If you don’t happen to be in town during festival week, film buffs shouldn’t be disappointed as they can still enjoy world premieres in Leicester Square (there are at least one a week), specialist art-house cinemas and, in summer, a number of outdoor screenings near iconic buildings, such as City Hall and Somerset House. There’s even a floating cinema, which navigates the city’s waterways and venues where you can take in a film from the comfort of a hot tub!

Even if your visit is a short one and you don’t have the time to fully immerse yourself in London’s art scene, merely walking this great city’s streets will enable you to soak up its cultural diversity. From the hundreds of different languages spoken on the streets (more languages are spoken here than in any other city in the world) to the buildings and monuments – both old and new – which act as a reminder of the city’s artistic talent, there’s no doubt London is a global centre for art and culture that is both respected and envied the world over.

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Image credits: ©Brunel Johnson/Ryan Stefan/Unsplash; IWM; Jim Mneymneh/Sadlers Wells Theatre; RGB Kew; The O2; The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

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