Mummies, Monet & Napoleon's toothbrush: discover London's top museums

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London is home to the world’s greatest collection of museums and galleries, from blockbusters to tucked-away treasures. The result of private and royal collections, and years of imperial acquisitions and plunder, these museums are one of the main attractions of the British capital for locals and visitors alike. Here we shine a spotlight on our favourites, and introduce some of their lesser-known, yet equally intriguing, cousins.

British Museum

The mother (or should that be ‘mummy’?) of all museums, the British Museum (or BM, as it’s known by staff and regulars) is the world’s oldest national public museum and London’s top free attraction. Since opening in 1759 to ‘all curious and studious persons’, people have come to view the unrivalled collections of antiquities from Egypt, Greece, Rome and Britain, among others.

With over six million objects it’s impossible to see everything on one visit so either pick one or two civilisations and spend an hour or two exploring their cultures in depth, or head straight for the highlights – the Rosetta Stone (the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics), the Parthenon Sculptures (controversially brought to Britain from Athens in the early 19th century), the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial hoard and, of course, the mummies. From March to September 2013, the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum will showcase objects from the city famously buried by a volcano in 79AD.

If you like the British Museum check out Sir John Soane’s Museum in Holborn. London’s worst-kept secret, this eclectic collection of ancient artefacts and paintings is housed in the eponymous architect’s stylish 18th-century townhouse.

National Gallery

For a who’s who of Western art, from Michelangelo to Van Gogh, head to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Sq. If it’s a chronological run-through you’re after then start in the Sainsbury Wing with the likes of Botticelli and his racy (for its day) Venus and Mars, then amble past Rubens, Velazquez and Turner until you reach one of the most popular galleries, the Impressionists, with masterpieces by Monet and his pals. Or plot and print out a personalised itinerary using the ArtStart multimedia system – ask at one of the information desks for details. The main exhibition this year, Barocci: Brilliance and Grace, is showing from February to May and will bring this relatively unknown 16th-century Italian painter’s work to the attention of the wider public.

If you like the National Gallery stroll along the Strand to the Courtauld Gallery, a small but exquisite collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings within Somerset House.

National Gallery by Tom Godber. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike Licence

Science Museum

You don’t have to be a geek to enjoy London’s Science Museum – but if you are, you’ll be in heaven. Seven floors cover humanity’s scientific achievements, from the 1829 Rocket train that started the railway revolution, to a display on how astronauts go to the toilet in space. It’s a big and busy place so if time is short, or you just want to tick off the biggest wows in the collection, focus on the Making the Modern World gallery with its show-stealing selection of objects that have changed history over the last 250 years. A special exhibition on Alan Turing, computer pioneer and WWII codebreaker (he was part of the team that cracked the Enigma Code), is on until July 2013.

If you like the Science Museum especially its medical section, then the Wellcome Collection in Bloomsbury has fascinating displays on the history of medicine. Look out for Napoleon’s toothbrush and the story of the human genome.

Science Museum, London by Heather Cowper. Creative Commons Attribution Licence

National Maritime Museum

The best way to get to Greenwich’s National Maritime Museum and learn about when Britannia ruled the waves is, appropriately, by boat down the Thames from central London. With an hour or two you’ll be able to uncover highlights such as the bloodstained (and surprisingly small) coat that Admiral Nelson was wearing when he died at the Battle of Trafalgar, exhibits on the British love affair with the seaside, and a compelling display examining Britain’s role in the slave trade. Photography from the Mountains to the Sea, an exhibition of photographs by Ansel Adams, is on until the end of April 2013 and focusses on works by the famous American photographer that have a particular connection with water.

If you like the Maritime Museum then visit the Cutty Sark clipper, just a five-minute stroll away. Beautifully restored in 2012, its exhibits cover the ship’s history, especially its time as the fastest boat plying the tea trade between China and Britain.

Tower of London

Part medieval fortress, part museum, the Tower of London encapsulates over 900 years of London’s history. Famous for being a prison, its lesser-known roles include being a former royal mint, military garrison and even the capital’s first zoo (in the Middle Ages monarchs liked sending each other exotic animals). The execution site may be gore-free (just a small plaque listing seven names – most people were executed on nearby Tower Hill), but join a Beefeater tour (included in the admission price) and have the place brought to life with an hour of gruesome and historical tales. Then get your sparkle fix at the Crown Jewels – the queue is inevitable, but they’re worth the wait.

If you like the Tower and want more on London’s history, check out the Museum of London. Perched above a section of original Roman wall near St Paul’s Cathedral, the museum has enough prehistoric axe heads, medieval church paintings, plague-related objects and reconstructed Victorian streets to keep the most enthusiastic historian happy.

This article was published in February 2013 and updated in April 2013.