Not to be confused with the Greenwich Heritage Centre, which is located in Royal Arsenal, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre is located near the Cutty Sark, in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. Housed in the Pepys Building, originally an engineering laboratory for the ORNC, it opened in 2010.
The free Centre offers an introduction to the history and attractions within the Greenwich World Heritage Site. It has information on the history of the Palace of Placentia, models of Christopher Wren’s original designs for Greenwich Hospital, the carved heads originally intended to decorate the exterior of the Painted Hall, and a model of a lion originally intended for external decoration, too. I particularly enjoyed the section about Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Henry VIII, and the archaeological work that has discovered more about the palace and its layout and decoration.
The Centre has other displays about maritime Greenwich and about the history of the Royal Naval College, which occupied Greenwich Hospital and the surrounding area between 1873 and 1998. It also has a Tourist Information desk and a gift shop.
This free visitor centre is well worth checking out as introduction to Greenwich.
Address: 2 Cutty Sark Gardens, Old Royal Naval College, London, SE10 9LW
I read about the London Mithraeum on the London’s Museums blog, and immediately put it on my list of places to visit. You have to book in advance, but entry is free, and I signed up to visit in the morning of the best Saturday of the year so far. It was bright, sunny and not too cold, and as I arrived at Bank station well before my entry time, I spent a few minutes just wandering around the area and enjoying the outdoors (something which is highly unusual for me).
The Mithraeum is located in the basement of Bloomberg SPACE, which is on Walbrook, just next to Bank station. The street was named after the Walbrook river which used to flow over this very spot; I also spied an artwork by Cristina Iglesias marking this lost river. The river is important to the Mithraeum, as it was the soggy conditions of the soil in this spot that allowed the preservation of so many incredible Roman artefacts.
The Roman settlement of Londinium was founded nearly 2,000 years ago. Almost two centuries later, a resident built a temple to the god Mithras on the banks of the Walbrook. Eventually covered over and forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1954, its purpose only uncovered on the last day of excavations when a head of Mithras was found. The discovery sparked great public interest, with more than 30,000 people queuing up to see the site on some days. The Temple was dismantled and reconstructed elsewhere, opening in 1962.
Bloomberg acquired the site in 2010, and worked with the City of London and conservation specialists to restore the Temple to its original location and allow the public to access it.
I entered the building at the appropriate time, had my ticket scanned, and was immediately confronted by a very un-Roman scene: a work by Isabel Nolan, Another View from Nowhen, comprising a colourful tapestry and a large open sculpture. before heading towards the display case at the back of the building. Gazing in awe at the huge range of archaeological finds I was offered an electronic tablet to help make sense of them. As previously mentioned, the damp earth allowed for many objects to be preserved that would ordinarily have decayed long before, including a door, sandals, and writing tablets. There were the usual pottery fragments and decorative acessories, including a striking bull ornament supposed to represent Taurus.
Heading down the stairs to the next level, a timeline on the wall leads you back through time via significant events in London’s history. At the bottom, models of important discoveries with interactive displays help you to understand the significance of Mithras and the Temple before you head into the Temple itself.
Who was Mithras?
Scholars have been studying the cult of Mithras for two hundred years, but even so not a lot is known. Most of what we know is down to interpretation. The central icon of the cult, an reconstruction of which is displayed here, is an image of Mithras killing a bull, which may be a battle or a sacrifice. It has been interpreted as a creation myth and possibly a vision of the universe, owing to the Zodiac symbols surrounding one of the models. Other Mithras icons have been found all over Europe, and they and the archeological sites from which they come have helped scholars to deduct what a Mithraic ritual might have been like.
Inside the Temple
Temple ‘experiences’ take place every twenty minutes. You enter a long dark room, with a walkway around the edge of the wall and jutting out slightly into the centre. Audio and lighting effects create a spooky atmosphere, as if Romans were walking into the Temple to worship. It’s hugely atmospheric and effective, and you get a sense of what the Temple might have looked like and how it all fits together. A metal frame at the end shows where the model of Mithras would have been.
To sum up…
The Mithraeum is amazing and well worth a visit. The display is great and well-organised, and the temple itself is very atmospheric. Don’t miss if you have any interest at all in the Roman history of London.
Getting back into museum visiting mode, I paid a visit this weekend to a place I’ve been meaning to go for a long time: the Royal Academy of Music Museum. I’ve attended a few concerts at the Royal Academy of Music and often walked past the free museum, but I’ve never had the chance to go as it’s only open during the day. I headed down on Saturday afternoon, turning left out of Baker Street station and passing the queue of expectant tourists waiting to go into Madam Tussaud’s.
The museum is located in the RAM’s premises on Marylebone Road. It has an entrance area with a gift shop (not to mention a well-stocked selection of music books) and displays on three floors.
The ground floor covers the history of the RAM, which was founded in 1822 by a group of aristocrats. The Academy’s first premises were on Tenterden Street; the first pupils were youngsters aged 10-15 and the President was former child prodigy William Crotch. Eventually the Academy attracted royal patronage, with George IV signing the Royal Charter in 1830.
The rest of the ground floor is given over to special exhibitions; the current exhibition focuses on the Spencer Collection, which came to the Academy from the estate of Robert ‘Bob’ Spencer, professor of Early English Song at the Academy for many years. Spencer was a former librarian, and loved tracking down and collecting the rare manuscripts and instruments that form the backbone of his fascinating collection, which was instrumental (pun intended) in igniting the study of early music in England.
The first floor is the home of the Strings Gallery, which has some fine examples of harps, violins, violas, a cello and a double bass. One violin is a Stradivari. The Piano Gallery is located on the second floor, with a number of fine examples of instruments from several centuries, including Georgian square pianos, early nineteenth century Broadwood instruments (one of these was gifted to Beethoven) and a Steinway grand.
The gallery is a very pleasant place to visit for anyone with an interest in music and instruments; it’s full of fascinating historical information.
Address: 1–5 York Gate, Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5HT
It’s the start of a fresh new year and I really want to get on to visiting some of the many, many museums in and around London. With that in mind, on the first Saturday of 2018 I headed down to the London Sewing Machine Museum, located near Tooting Bec Station in south London.
The Museum is on the top floor of the premises of the Sewing and Craft Superstore, just round the corner of the station. You go through the front entrance and up the stairs to be confronted with – unsurprising given the name of the museum – sewing machines. There is a room full of them, in fact, all of which are examples of those used in industry (the museum owner supplied all of the machines used in the film Made in Dagenham). In a room just beyond are the machines designed for domestic use, including several miniatures, a number designed to be folded away after use, and one that can be disguised as a lion when not in use. The shop front in the museum is from the original branch of the Wimbledon Sewing Machine Co. Ltd, founded by the grandfather of the present company director, Ray Rushton. He inherited his grandfather’s passion for sewing machines and is responsible for many of the collection’s gems.
I’ve never used a sewing machine myself – I’ve always found them to be a bit scary – but I was fascinated by the museum, in no small part thanks to the enthusiastic volunteer who gave us a short guided tour of the space. If it hadn’t been for her I would certainly have missed Barthélemy Thimonnier’s unobtrusive wooden machine, the first widely-used and practical machine, invented in 1829. More obvious was the ornate Victorian machine gifted to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and used by her nurse for many years.
I certainly hadn’t expected to come across Charlie Chaplin and Boy George in the museum. Machines associated with both entertainers can be found here: the original sewing machine belonging to Chaplin’s mother, and an identical model to that used by Boy George’s mother to sew many of his early costumes.
The museum is surprisingly interesting even for those who aren’t massively into sewing machines, and it’s free too. Well worth visiting if you have a free Saturday afternoon.
On the same day I visited the Supreme Court, I decided to pop into the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve been there a few times in the past, but it’s been a while since I’ve gone through it thoroughly.
The NPG was founded in 1856 and was the first portrait gallery in the world. It moved to its current site in 1896. As the name suggests, it contains portraits of the great and the good from the late medieval period onwards – the pictures have been chosen for the significance of the sitter, not the artist. It’s interesting to see how this changes over time: in the sixteenth century it’s mainly monarchs, with the odd courtier; later on the litany includes scientists, artists and poets, and the modern day portraits include celebrities: singers, actors and sports people.
The Gallery is arranged chronologically from the top to the bottom, so I headed to the top floor via the escalator. The first things you see are casts from the tombs of medieval kings, this from a time before portraits were common. From then it’s straight into the Tudor era, starting with a few Tudor-era portraits of medieval kings. I still remember the first time I saw this part of the Gallery: I was fresh from studying the Tudors at A Level, and it was amazing to see the paintings I’d only ever seen in textbooks in the flesh. Queen Elizabeth has a strong presence but there are also famous pictures of Henry VIII and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Paintings dating from the Jacobean period onwards cover monarchs as well as famous scientists, writers and artists, including the famous Chandos portrait of Shakespeare and one of my favourites – a dramatic painting of poet John Donne. I naturally gravitate towards the writers – I love the picture of Lord Byron towards the end of these galleries.
Works from the Victorian era can be found on the floor below; these are very, well, Victorian. There is a room for politicians and a corridor for famous public faces, plus many representations of Queen Victoria herself. My favourite room here is the writers’ room, which contains Branwell Brontë’s painting of his three famous sisters, as well as a picture of another of my favourite authors, Thomas Hardy. Another of my favourites is the dashing portrait of a young Lord Tennyson.
The early twentieth-century gallery has recently been refurbished, and it was good to see it looking refreshed. In general this isn’t my favourite artistic period, but there are some interesting portraits here of the likes of Virginia Woolf, Sir Ernest Shackleton and Sir Winston Churchill.
The Gallery hosts regular special exhibitions (for which a charge is made) and offers late-night opening on Thursdays and Fridays. It’s smaller and a bit less daunting than the nearby National Gallery, but it’s well worth a visit.
When you think of airports in London, you probably think of Heathrow or Gatwick, but before these airports, there was… Croydon. Based in South London, it was the main airport for London before it was replaced by Northolt Aerodrome, London Heathrow Airport and Gatwick Airport. Croydon Airport was Britain’s first major international airport, coming into being during World War I and closing in 1959.
The Historic Croydon Airport Trust, also known as the Croydon Airport Society, was founded in 1978 and became a registered charity in 1983. It aims to conserve the history and heritage of London Croydon Airport for the community. The Croydon Airport Visitor Centre is a ‘micro museum’ run by the charity, and is open to the public once a month. I headed down one Sunday to find out more.
London Croydon Airport was once Britain’s major and only international gateway airport. It played a significant part in early twentieth century British history and helping to shape global air travel. The airport was the birthplace of Air Traffic Control – the control tower here was the world’s first. It also played an important part as the site of many world record-breaking flights, including those undertaken by Amy Johnson. The international distress call ‘Mayday’ was coined here.
Airport House, as the terminal building and control tower are now known, are Grade 2* listed.
I joined a tour pretty much as soon as I arrived. My guide was very informative and took us around the building, showing us where visitors used to arrive and depart, taking us to the control tower at the back before heading up the stairs to view the displays. He regaled us with interesting historical info that complemented the exhibition.
There are some flight simulator games at the top of the control tower to keep kids happy, but the whole site should be interesting for adults. There are some original aeroplane seats which seemed much more comfortable and luxurious than the ones we get nowadays, and displays about the history of the site. It made me think of Agatha Christie for some reason, and made me feel nostalgic for the good old days when you could turn up at the airport with a bag and hop on a plane without all the queuing and security checks we have to go through now.
A visit to Croydon Airport is definitely worth it. Keep an eye on the website for details of open days.
As part of my bid to visit every museum in London, I popped into the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre one day when I had a bit of free time. This tiny museum can be found in the basement of the Portland Place headquarters of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. It explores the (comparatively) short history of anaesthesia and pain relief.
The lack of pain relief in surgery obviously meant that the kinds of operations that could be performed were limited: usually things like amputations or the removal of bladder stones (as in the case of diarist Samuel Pepys, who underwent this excruciating operation in 1658). Early practitioners sometimes used herbs to anaesthetise (and, in the Far East, acupuncture), but more often an unfortunate patient was simply given some alcohol and then held down. More rigorous scientific practice led to the development of such anaesthetics as chloroform. On display are several examples of the apparatus used to deliver pain relief, including masks and needles. In the early days it was often hard to judge how much anaesthetic to give: too little and the patient might wake up mid-surgery, too much and they might die of an overdose.
The display looks at the development of anaesthesia as a valid and recognised branch of medicine. From 1912 it became part of the medical curriculum, and the Diploma in Anaesthetics was introduced in 1935.
There is a brief display on the role of anaesthetics during World War I, which is particularly interesting. I definitely recommend this tiny free museum if you’re in the area.
I work near to the Building Centre in Bloomsbury, so it’s strange that it took me so long to go in, and even stranger that when I finally did go, it was on a Saturday. The Centre exists to promote innovation in the built environment, according to its website, and was first established in 1931. Today, it functions as an architecture centre and galleries with exhibitions related to contemporary building and design – it also has a coffee shop, which is available to the public and also puts on various coffee-related events.
The centrepiece of the permanent exhibition is the New London Model, a 3D map of central London, accompanying a series of displays on Transforming The Boroughs, which contain information about past, current and future projects in all areas of London. Check out your own area or explore more widely.
The Centre also has a programme of rotating free exhibitions. The current exhibition is Night Time Is The Right Time, which runs until 15 August. It explores how architects and designers have imagined cities to run better and more efficiently during the night time, and I found it fascinating. There is also a small exhibition on the 50th anniversary of the Lee Valley Regional Park.
If you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth popping in to check out how the built environment of London could transform within the next few years.
Address: 26 Store Street, Bloomsbury, London, WC1E 7BT
The Design Museum has undergone a pretty impressive transformation lately – it’s moved venue. Originally based in Shad Thames near London Bridge, it recently took over the old Commonwealth building on High Street Kensington, opening only a few months ago.
The building itself is pretty impressive. Located on a busy high street, it has an appealing modern entrance and is hugely striking inside. Photographs on the mezzanine illustrate the progress of the transformation. Like many museums in London, the Design Museum is made up of a mixture of free permanent exhibitions and temporary paid exhibitions, with something to suit every taste; there’s a café, restaurant and gift shop too.
The major free exhibition is called Designer Maker User, and it looks at examples of good design throughout modern history, from furniture to games consoles to road signs. The Tube map makes an appearance, not to mention typewriters and computers.
The second free exhibition I saw was Cartier in Motion, which looked at the history of Cartier. Sponsored by the brand, it is in many ways a commercial exhibition, but it was informative and interesting, even if it didn’t convince me that I need a Cartier watch.
The two temporary exhibitions currently are Imagine Moscow, in the basement, and California: Designing Freedom, on the ground floor. I visited one and not the other; it’s handy to be able to choose what you want to see. There’s a rolling programme of paid temporary exhibitions, reason to go back again and again.
The Design Museum is definitely a worthwhile place to visit, should you be interested in this kind of thing. The free exhibition is wide-ranging enough to attract attention and the range of temporary exhibitions is certainly promising.
Address: 224-238 Kensington High Street, London, W8 6AG
The Hunterian Museum is about to close for a three-year refit, so I decided to pop in one Saturday beforehand. I had visited the museum a few years ago, but don’t actually remember all that much about my visit, so it was about time for another.
The museum is located in the Royal College of Surgeons, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields just across from John Soane’s house. On this occasion I had to queue for half an hour to get in: the imminent closure of the museum means that people are rushing to visit, but it isn’t usual to have to queue for this place.
The collection of John Hunter, a pioneer and hugely important figure in the field of surgery, was purchased by the government in 1799 and given to the Company (later The Royal College) of Surgeons. This collection formed the basis for the museum which opened as part of the new Royal College of Surgeons of London’s building, which still stands today. The museum was redesigned and expanded several times during the nineteenth century, but during the Second World War the building was bombed and much of the collection destroyed. It reopened in 1963, but was remodelled again in the latter half of the century, before reopening in its current form in 2005.
The museum, the bulk of which is made up of John Hunter’s collections, contains many medical specimens. I admit I didn’t look too closely at these as I am rather squeamish. However, it is a valuable resource for students of medicine. Notable displays include preserved tumours, skeletons affected by syphilis, and the full skeleton of Charles Byrne, ‘the Irish giant’. There are also some interesting paintings, and displays covering the history of surgery and the exploration of anatomy in London.
It’s a shame this excellent small museum will be closed for three years, but hopefully it will reopen to the public in 2020 even bigger and better than before.
Address: The Royal College of Surgeons of England, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, C2A 3PE