A Culture Vulture's Guide to London's Free Museum Tours
As one of the great cultural capitals of the world, London is packed with world-class museums and galleries that are famously free to the public. What’s less well known, at least to visitors to London, are the number of free and fascinating daily tours, talks and events that take place in most of the major museums and galleries. Joining a gallery tour is a brilliant way to save you spending valuable time with your head in a guide book or museum map and guarantees you to get even more out of your visit. Here are my top five museum and gallery picks in London that run these fantastic free taster tours.
The British Museum
Brimming with treasures, some dating back more than two million years, the British Museum is a mind-bogglingly awe-inspiring obligatory stop during your stay in London. Amongst the most famous highlights is one of the world’s greatest collections of Ancient Egyptian artefacts and of course, the Rosetta Stone. These might entice you inside, but once there, you’ll soon discover that there is much much more worth discovering. To prepare you for the immensity of the collections, it’s a good idea to take a look at the museum’s website before you embark on your trip. There are some fantastic guides to the museum online including a BBC radio series created by the museum’s director titled, ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects.’ This might be too lengthy to listen in its entirety before your trip, but tune in to what you can; it’s a fascinating listen!
There are also a great many free daily talks and tours that, with the minimal amount of coordination, will ensure that you get even more out of your visit. The ‘Eye Opener’ tours are fifteen 30 – 40 minute talks that take place daily between 11am through to 3.45pm, each focusing on a different exhibition space within the museum.
There are free lunchtime talks that start in, and focus on a different gallery each day at 1.15pm. If you’re too busy taking in other tourist sights during the day, there’s a good selection of free activities to coincide with the late-night Friday opening hours. Running from 5pm until 7.30pm every Friday evening, four 20-minute ‘spotlight’ tours delve into the highlights of several of the museum’s collections.
Take a look at the events page on the museum’s website before you make your visit, there’s always so much going on, if you plan your visit right, you might happen to stumble across a Japanese tea ceremony or people playing an ancient Roman for the day!
The Victoria and Albert Museum
Opened in the mid 19th century following the success of, and with profits from the ‘Great Exhibition’ of 1851, the purpose of the museum was to house a collection of art works that would educate and inspire British designers and manufacturers. One of the most eclectic museums in London, the permanent collection at the V&A (as locals call it) consists of over 4.5 million objects from around the globe, some dating back 5000 years. What’s more, the rich variety of artistic mediums; ceramics, sculpture, fashion, jewellery, prints, ironwork, photography, silver to name but a few, mean that there is truly something to suit everyone’s taste.
Impossible to fully take in all 4.5 million objects in one visit, the best way to discover the museum is to follow one of the free daily introductory or gallery tours and then explore whichever collections most take your fancy. The tour guides are often specialists in a particular area of the museum and are masters of bringing every object vividly to life through brilliant storytelling.
Like many of the major museums and galleries in London, the V&A is open late (until 10pm) on Fridays and if you’re in the area, this is a particularly good time to visit. There is a special programme of gallery events including talks, workshops and screenings, and once a month you might stumble across live music concerts in the ornate café (the first museum café in the world). Take a look at the events calendar before your visit to see if you can coincide with a tour, talk or special event.
The National Gallery
For fine art lovers, a visit to the National Gallery is a must. Housed in a grandiose classical style building, you’ll find some of Western Europe’s greatest paintings that date from the 13th to the early 20th century. There are masterpieces by Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Vermeer, Manet, Monet and Turner amongst others but perhaps the most easily recognisable, is Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers.’
Dominating the north side of Trafalgar Square smack-bang in the heart of London, you’re bound to be passing the National Gallery at some point so make sure you make a stop! Gallery specialists lead free, 60 minute taster tours twice daily during the week (at 11.30am and 2.30pm) and there’s an additional 4pm tour on the weekend.
So if you can, coincide your visit with one of the free tours to get even more out of your visit. If you’re a budding artist, the free ‘Talk and Draw’ events, every Friday between 1 – 2pm, start with an introductory talk focusing on a specific artwork and then allow you to draw your response. Check out the website for more information. Late night opening is every Friday (until 9pm) and there are additional talks, tours and art events as well as free music concerts given by students from the Royal College of Music to take in –- perfect for some after dinner entertainment!
The National Portrait Gallery
Often overlooked by visitors to London, those who do make it into the National Portrait Gallery often rate it as one of their highlights. The permanent collection consists of several floors of oil paintings of historically significant Brits, but on the ground floor you’ll find modern art portraits in a variety mediums. A ‘who’s who’ of current British public figures, it’s like the art version of Madame Tussaurds wax-work museum; a visit to the NPG is a great way to get up to speed with contemporary British culture. Entry is always free to the permanent collection, to many of the contemporary exhibitions and, on the late night openings (Thursday and Friday ‘till 9pm), there’s a selection of free and fabulous events. Thursday nights are for exhibition tours, talks, debates and philosophical salons while every Friday you’ll find live music, DJ sets, screenings and drop-in-drawing workshops. Check out the website for future event listings.
The Tate Modern
Back in June I described a fantastic walking tour along London’s cultural and historical South Bank, which included an obligatory stop at London’s temple of 20th century art, the Tate Modern.
This former power station is the place to go if you want to take in a Rothko, Miró, Pollock, Giacometti, Dali, Picasso, Duchamp or many more greats from the modern art scene whist in London. Even better, it’s free! Each and every day, at 11am 12pm, 2pm and 3pm there are free gallery guided tours that last 45 minutes. Each tour focuses on a different collection, so, if you really want to get to grips with modern art in a day, you could stay for all four!
If you’ve been busy elsewhere during the daytime, the Tate Modern opens ‘till 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights and this is one of my favourite times to visit: combining dinner and a walk along the Thames River with some fabulous art, is my idea of a pretty perfect London evening.
Photo credits: British Museum by LineFT, V&A by fmpgoh, CBourne007 and anne-marie!, National Gallery by MariposaCruz and petrus.agricola, National Portrait Gallery by Guerilla Science and Tate Modern by SWh and Le Kizz.
Maggie McNulty is an ACIS Tour Manager from the United Kingdom. She caught the travel bug at a very early age and takes every opportunity to feed her passion for foreign lands.
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