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The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert

London's Endlessly Fascinating and Totally Fabulous Free Museums


Visit the Louvre in Paris and it will set you back €10. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York they'll hit you up for $25 and you'll spend $19 to see the giant blue whale and the gems at the American Museum of Natural History. It's the same everywhere - in Spain major museum admission is €10 or €11. Berlin's Pergamon charges €18 to see the famous head of Nefertiti.

But British museums are different - the best British museums are almost all completely free. The British Museum and the V&A are among the UK's greatest treasure houses. The exhibits and stories they share with everyone are among the very best in the world.

The British Museum

Lewis Chess Men at the British Museum
Courtesy of the British Museum

The history of human civilization - from pretty much everywhere - is not only collected but also beautifully interpreted in this wonderful museum. Where to begin? You could easily spend a week wandering around it and still be left gasping at new discoveries.

Get up close and personal with the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the mysteries of the ancient world; examine a 2000 year old hoard of Roman Gold; see how Egyptian mummies were wrapped, look over an Easter Island statue given to the museum by Queen Victoria, check out the Lewis Chessmen who featured in a Harry Potter film. Treasures of the Incas, beautiful African sculpture and artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin, panels from the palace of Assyrian King Sennacherib in the legendary city of Nineveh.

Pick your era, pick your continent, pick your culture and you will find it. At the heart of the Museum's modern courtyard, you can even visit the round reading room where Karl Marx (and I) studied when it was still the main reading room of the British Library. And with the exception of the occasional blockbuster exhibition, its all free. But if you must spend some money, there are several good cafes and bookshops as well as a superb gift shop.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The V&A focuses on design and applied art. So if you thought you didn't like museums but you love looking at fashion and jewelry or interior design, this is definitely the place. The darkened fashion galleries sparkle with glass cases full of the "the latest thing" for an Elizabethan fashionista, an 18th century court dandy, a 60's hipster in Biba, a 70s flower child, and the audience at yesterday's catwalk shows. Dee-vine, darling.

But of course this museum is more than just a fashion show. You can walk through a 16th century British room, complete with elaborate panelling, see the glassware that the Romans used, marvel at one of the largest Persian rugs ever made, try to follow the story spiraling up a cast of Trajan's Column or see a complete London house front as it looked before the Great Fire of 1666.

The new arrangements of the Medieval and Renaissance galleries are wonderful and so inspiring that the museum even supplies little folding yellow stools you can set up for a spot of sketching. The Middle Eastern exhibition is a revelation. My personal favorites are the glass gallery, showcasing the craft from the earliest glass vessels found in Britain to stunning modern contemporary artwork in glass, and the new ceramics rooms, with dazzling examples from all over the world.

Even the restaurant is a treasure. Its three interconnected rooms include The Green Dining Room - the first public commission for William Morris & Co, with stained glass painted by Burne-Jones; the Gamble Room and the Poynter Room. All are spectacular examples of Victorian exhuberance in ceramic tile, cast iron and stained glass.

Oh, almost forgot - the main V&A Shop is a must visit for contemporary jewelry design and terrific presents.

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