3. About museums
For pleasure or business in London, my obligation of educated Romanian made me visit al least one British museum. What was a cultural and educational obligation at the beginning, once I stepped in the first London museum (unless it is the Wax Museum), turned into real pleasure. I was surprised to find out that I liked visiting museums, reading explanations or listening to them in the headphones for one pound and taking pictures anywhere I liked.
The London museums are as vivid as I expected them to be. They are animated by groups of tourists (less numerous in November), students that you can see drawing in front of an exhibit or by organised groups of pupils doing their homework.
They are interactive because at the end of a gallery you can put into practice what you have learnt in there, playing with several materials. An example: the Theatre Museum has a stage where a guide teaches the tourists how to utter the speech of a character and even to play. When I participated in the experiment, the main female character was played by an 80-year-old lady while her saviour was hardly 15. I think I hadn't laughed with such joy for a long time.
They are new. This means that besides the core of the museum, each gallery shows the visitors temporary exhibitions that it promotes even more than the name of the museum itself. The exhibitions bring the local people to museums and make them an attractive place even for the people in London.
They are free! At least the state-owned ones. The entrance to some exhibitions is sometimes even stiff. The entrance ticket for the Armani exhibition was nine pounds, for instance. But the big, important museums are free of charge. This doesn't mean you can't spend money in here. It's true that you don't have to pay for the entrance, but you can be generous, and the museum shows you, according to complicated budget calculation, of course, the accepted limit above which you may consider yourself as such: in some museums it's at least two pounds, in others with higher expenses, at least three pounds.
Another place where you can spend your money is the museum restaurant. All of them have a restaurant. Some look like a huge canteen, like the ground floor restaurant in the British Museum, others look like a futurist café ¦acing the Thames, like Tate Art Gallery Modern. Here, after a tiring museum tour, you have the opportunity and delight to ponder on your impressions over a cup of coffee, usually more expensive than downtown. Needless to say, they are full and really useful.
At the exit of the museum you cannot miss the shop inside it. A huge shop that most of the times sells all kinds of expensive souvenirs, true copies at small scale of the exhibits in the museum, books, and greeting cards. And as we were approaching Christmas, all the shops suggested that the best present to buy was a souvenir.
These are some common points of the London museums. I visited a lot of museums while I was there, but I'm going to make a more detailed description of only three of them: the British Museum - the tourists' museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum - the school museum and Tate Art Gallery - the museum in movement.
British Museum - the tourists' museum
The British Museum was founded by Sir Hans Sloane, a rich doctor in Chelsea, in 1753. It is interesting that the pride of Great Britain regarding museums was created through this private initiative to exhibit a personal collection.
The British Museum is a sanctuary of many civilisation treasures, all of them belonging to a certain moment in the past of the great British Empire. A small part of the Ancient Egypt (the famous mummies), of India (some statuettes that are really interesting), of Ancient China (the porcelains are superb), of Europe (jewellery and furniture of the last centuries) are proudly presented in the British Museum. Walking down these galleries, I realised that, century after century, the world was divided into two parts: the British Empire plus its colonies and the rest. And I thought for a long time that there were only two forces: Soviet Russia and the knavish capitalist world.
Speaking about Soviet Russia, the library in the middle of the building is the place where Marx planned the fall of capitalism, and where later on Hitler came to read. Now there are in that library both rare, old books and computers that any visitor can use.
Despite this grandeur, I have to admit that the British Museum hasn't impressed me so much. Nevertheless it is the first option of a hurried tourist in London who wants to swallow quickly a lot of information. However, as a place, the British Museum conveys cold, typical British politeness.
It contrasts with the life and agitation of the Victoria & Albert Museum - the school museum.
The Victoria &Albert Museum was founded in the 1850s and aims to present a history of Art and interior Design starting with the Antiquity up to the present (1960).
For me, the Victoria & Albert Museum has been the revelation of all the British museums. It is alive, interactive, and diverse. It is difficult not to find something of interest in the V&A.
The two galleries that exhibit reproductions of famous art works, especially statues and antiques are populated almost all the time by students of sculpture, painting or architecture who work in the galleries by themselves, in a group or with their professors. Actually it is for these students that these reproductions in gypsum were created over a century ago. And they take full advantage of that.
Besides students, the museum is visited by groups of pupils aged between 6 and 14, who come together with their teachers to do their homework here.
The V&A is an interactive museum. At the end of each gallery there is a room with applications where you can wear a costume of the 21st century, a woman' clothes in Victorian style, you can draw your own monogram on the computer or you can build a tower out of crystal pieces.
For me the V&A was a livelier and more authentic place than the British Museum, due to the people who visit it.
Tate Art Gallery - Modern
In London, to be up to date with modern art means to be kept posted with what happens in Tate Art Gallery - Modern. And there is always something happening there. Whether exhibitions or changes of the entrance hall. When I was there, a superb artificial sun was placed in the main hall. The project is called "the Weather Project" and it is the creation of Olafur Eliasson. I was impressed not only by the light, but especially by the generous use of space: a huge hall left under the invasion of this light and of artificially created fog. On the ceiling there were mirrors that gave you the impression that you had stepped into another dimension. A feeling of lying under the sun in a computer. And the museum visitors who participated in the artistic performance were lying down on the floor in the artificial light of the globe.
The modern Tate tries to shock. Even just by the gallery dedicated to the masculine nude - paintings, photographs, and artistic works. Or by the unusual materials with which contemporary art is being made. An example is Tonny Cragg who fills an entire wall with plastic coloured remains (toothbrushes, sharpeners, pens, other objects) and names the work: Britain seen from the North. Tonny Cragg made this work in 1981, a moment of economic crisis for Great Britain.
Bill Viola, an American artist, is another revelation. He uses the computer and its programs to express real powerful feelings. Both creations exhibited at the Tate impressed me. The first, entitled Still alive offers the image of a fruit basket on the computer screen. In four minutes these fruits begin to decay under your eyes and finally what is left is probably a basket with residues that smell bad. The image is vivid, although it is computerised, and the feeling is intense. I almost cried in the end.
The second work is called 6 attitudes and renders in slow motion, in twenty minutes, the different gestures which an actor normally makes in 3 minutes. There are expressions of joy, bewilderment, sadness, melancholy. The last one is sleep. At the end of the twenty minutes, the last expression wakes up and thus the cycle starts all over again.
I visited many other museums: the Museum of Natural History (the dinosaurs' museum) situated in a huge, but superb building, the private little museum of the fans, the maritime Greenwich Museum, the Theatre Museum, and so on.
After all, they talk about the life of a city. A tourist city of, course, in summer time, but much more human during the month of November. And the time that the people in London spend to visit a museum or an exhibition says something, not exactly about their cultural level but something about civilisation and urban life.