An Art Lover’s Guide to the Best Museums in the United Kingdom

The “United Kingdom” (UK), commonly known as Britain, consists of four countries. Namely, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom has many great cities with some fabulous museums for every art lover to enjoy.

All the major cities in the United Kingdom have a dossier of various museums and art galleries. Whereas the city of London alone has over fifty different museums and galleries. With showcases of art, design, culture from Europe and all over the world. That is not all. Ranging from the biggest collection of decorative art and design in the Victoria and Albert Museum to the eclectic yet modern, Tate Group, the City of London redefines art and what an art lover looks for in the rich history that opens the doors of these coveted halls. The United Kingdom has museums for every type of art lover.

The culture of museums in the United Kingdom is coursing through the veins of art lovers at a steadfast pace. It is evident by the fact that most museums as well as art galleries are free to access for all. Yay! Everyone loves free stuff. While a few select exhibitions have to be paid for to experience, this isn’t a surprise, as everything in life isn’t free. However, most of the artifacts on display can be seen without paying a fee. Good news for the students who are on the lookout for free visits to museums.

If witnessing the artistic heritage is what your heart desires,  then read on to make yourself familiar with the 10 best museums in the United Kingdom. Everyone must pay a visit to :

1. National Railway Museum

Different types of railway engines in the National Railway Museum for every art lover
Different types of railway engines in the National Railway Museum, York / Credit: Britainexpress

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The National Railway Museum is one of the most famous museums in the United Kingdom. A go-to destination for journeys on trains and railway lines in Britain. The beautiful halls of this museum have a stock of trains. That is something which anyone of any age will enjoy. You can spot a Japanese bullet train as well as a Mallard, the fastest steam engine, over here. Apart from this, the workshop balcony offers an insight into the daily lives and work of the engineers who repair and restore these trains daily.

Specifically, the National Railway Museum is a museum in York. It forms a part of the Science Museum Group. Specifically,  the museum tells the story of rail transport in Britain and its impact on society. As the home of the national collection of historically significant railway vehicles, such as Mallard, Stirling Single, Duchess of Hamilton, and a Japanese bullet train. Some people can say that there isn’t beauty in trains, but their construction is an art in itself. And any art lover will surely appreciate it.

The Collections in the National Railway Museum

In addition, the National Railway Museum holds a diverse collection of other objects from a household recipe book used in George Stephenson’s house for a film showing a “never-stop railway” developed for the British Empire Exhibition. So, it’s no surprise that the museum has won many awards, including the European Museum of the Year Award in 2001.

As of 2019, the museum has embarked on a major site development. As part of the York Central redevelopment which will divert Leeman Road, the National Railway Museum will be building a new entrance building to connect the two separate parts of the museum. Exciting, whereas at the same time, the space around the museum will be landscaped to provide public spaces for every art lover to roam around.

In 2020, architectural practice Feilden Fowles won an international competition to create the museum’s building. Specifically, the new £16.5 million Central Hall building—a key element of the museum’s Vision 2025 master plan.

2. The National Gallery

National Gallery Museum, London
Outside view of the National Gallery Museum, London / Credit: Visit London

The National Gallery is an art museum in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster. Specifically, in Central London where it was founded in 1824. With houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th century to 1900.

The Gallery is an exempt charity, and a non-departmental public body of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Its collection belongs to the government on behalf of the British public, and entry to the main collection is free of charge. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it attracted only 1,197,143 visitors, a drop of 50 percent from 2019, but it still ranked eighth on the list of most-visited art museums in the world, especially for art lovers. 

Formation of The National Gallery

Unlike comparable museums in continental Europe, the National Gallery was not formed by nationalizing an existing royal or princely art collection. It came into being when the British government bought 38 paintings from the heirs of John Julius Angerstein in 1824. After that initial purchase, the Gallery was shaped mainly by its early directors, especially Charles Lock Eastlake, and by private donations, which now account for two-thirds of the collection. The collection is smaller than many European national galleries but encyclopedic in scope; most major developments in Western painting “from Giotto to Cézanne” are represented by important works. It used to be claimed that this was one of the few national galleries that had all its works on permanent exhibition, but this is no longer the case.

The present building, the third to house the National Gallery. It was designed by William Wilkins from 1832 to 1838. Only the facade of Trafalgar Square remains essentially unchanged from this time, as the building has been expanded piecemeal throughout its history. Wilkins’s building was often criticized for the perceived weaknesses of its design and its lack of space; the latter problem led to the establishment of the Tate Gallery for British art in 1897, to the art lover’s delight.

The Sainsbury Wing, a 1991 extension to the west by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, is a significant example of Postmodernist architecture in Britain. The current Director of the National Gallery is Gabriele Finaldi.

3. The British Museum

Spectacular internal view of the British Museum for every art lover
Spectacular internal view of the British Museum/ Credit: TripSavvy

The British Museum is a beautiful public museum with a dedication to human history, art, and culture. Located in the Bloomsbury area of London. It is home to a  permanent collection of eight million works, which makes it among the largest and most comprehensive museums in existence. Mostly, it documents the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. Furthermore, the British Museum was the first public national museum in the world.

Mainly, the British Museum successfully became an establishment in 1753. On a large basis on the collections of the Anglo-Irish physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane. The Montagu House was on the site of the current building when it was first opened to the public in 1759. As a result of British colonization, the museum’s expansion over the following 250 years was in the creation of several branch institutions, or independent spin-offs, the first being the Natural History Museum in 1881.

In 1973, the British Library Act 1972 detached the library department from the British Museum. Until 1997, the British Museum continued to host the now separated British Library in the same Reading Room and building as the museum. However, the museum is a non-departmental public body that received sponsorship from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. Consequently, with all national museums in the UK, it charges no admission fee, except for exhibitions on loans. 

While the ownership of a small percentage of its most famous objects has its origins in other countries, there is a dispute over that. Subsequently, it remains the subject of international controversy through repatriation claims. Most notably in the case of the Elgin Marbles of Greece, and the Rosetta Stone of Egypt.

4. Victoria and Albert Museum

Internal view of the objects at display in the V&A Museum/ Credit: TripSavvy / Gautier Houba
Internal view of the objects on display in the V&A Museum/ Credit: TripSavvy / Gautier Houba

The Victoria and Albert Museum is often abbreviated as the V&A for a short and easy reference. While London is the world’s largest museum of applied arts, decorative arts, and design. Subsequently, it houses a permanent collection of over 2.27 million objects. As you may guess, it received its name from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s name and came into existence in 1852.

The V&A is located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in an area known as “Albertopolis” because of its association with Prince Albert, the Albert Memorial, and the major cultural institutions with which he was in association with.  These include the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, and Imperial College London. The museum is a non-departmental public body that receives sponsorship from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport. As with other national museums in Britain, the entrance is completely free to walk through the doors of the V&A museum.

Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum for Art Lover’s

The V&A covers 12.5 acres (5.1 hectares) and 145 galleries. Its collection spans 5000 years of art, from ancient times to the present day, from the cultures of Europe, North America, Asia, and North Africa. However, the art of antiquity in most areas is not a result of the collection. The holdings of ceramics, glass, textiles, costumes, silver, ironwork, jewellery, furniture, medieval objects, sculpture, prints and printmaking, drawings, and photographs are among the largest and most comprehensive in the world.

The museum owns the world’s largest collection of post-classical sculptures. With the holdings of Italian Renaissance items being the largest outside Italy. The departments of Asia include art from South Asia, China, Japan, Korea, and the Islamic world. The East Asian collections are among the best in Europe, with particular strengths in ceramics and metalwork. While the Islamic collection is amongst the largest in the Western world. Whereas overall, it is one of the largest museums in the world.

5. National Portrait Gallery

Collections on display at the National Portrait Gallery
Collections on display at the National Portrait Gallery/ Credit: The Guardian

The collection of portraits of historically important and famous British people resides in the church.  While in 1856, it was arguably the first national public gallery with portraits in the world. The gallery shifted in 1896 to its current site at St Martin’s Place, off Trafalgar Square, and adjoining the National Gallery. It has undergone expansion twice since then. The National Portrait Gallery also has regional outposts at Beningbrough Hall in Yorkshire and Montacute House in Somerset. There is no connection to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, with which its remit overlaps.

The gallery was founded by an act of Parliament in 1856. With housing locations until its present home, an Italian Renaissance-style building designed by Ewan Christian opened in 1895/96. The building was extended in 1933 and 20 galleries were renovated throughout the 1980s and ’90s and in the 2020s. The gallery also maintains displays from its extensive collection at Montacute House, Somerset; Beningborough Hall, Shipton, Yorkshire; and Gawthorpe Hall, Padiham, Lancashire. Bodelwyddan Castle, Denbighshire, Wales, was host to parts of the gallery’s collection from 1988 to 2018. Surely an art lover will appreciate this.

The Collections in the National Portrait Gallery

The collection of the National Portrait Gallery comprises some 215,000 portraits in a variety of media: paintings, drawings, medallions, sculptures, photographs, motion pictures, and video recordings. The portraits are collections primarily for historical reasons and mainly consist of Britons. Mainly who have made notable contributions to the nation’s history since Tudor times. The presentation of the gallery’s holdings is done chronologically, beginning with the Tudors and moving on through the 21st century. The gallery’s arrangement illustrates different themes in British history, with maps and other period objects in use to complement the pictures.

Although the criterion for inclusion has always been the celebrity of the subject rather than the merit of the artist, many superb works of art are in the collection.

Numerous Portraits of Noteworthy Personalities

Among the numerous portraits of English, monarchs are one by Hans Holbein the Younger of Henry VIII with his father (c. 1537) and a fine portrait of Elizabeth I (c. 1575). Other famous works include Peter Paul Rubens’s portrait of Thomas Howard, 2nd earl of Arundel (1629), Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1702), and Warren Hastings by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1766–68). Self-portraits include ones by Reynolds (c. 1747), Thomas Gainsborough (c. 1759), and George Stubbs (1781).

Later noteworthy works comprise a drawing of Jane Austen (c. 1810) by her sister, Cassandra Austen; a group portrait of the Brontë sisters (c. 1834) by their brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë; and a photograph of Thomas Carlyle (1867) by Julia Margaret Cameron. In 1969, the gallery changed its policies to accept portraits of living people, leading to the acquisitions of such pieces as a self-portrait (1991) by Chris Ofili, a painting of Anna Wintour (2009) by Alex Katz, and a photograph of Malala Yousafzai (2018) by Shirin Neshat.

With a collection of around 8 million objects preserving human history, culture, and art.  Across almost 2 million years, the museum is a treasure trove for anyone with an interest in the history of humankind through the lens of portraits for every art lover.

Conclusion

But what if you have limited time and what if, like me, you sometimes get cultural overload? Even as a culture lover, an art lover can start wilting after an hour and a half of visiting museums and the thought of 8 million objects makes me feel a bit dizzy.

So, to make the process of finding the museums in the United Kingdom easy, I formulated this guide. Through this art lover’s guide, I hope you find a museum that you want to visit in the United Kingdom. There is a vast sub-culture of visiting museums in the UK. Perhaps you have a preference? Let me know in the comment section below which museum you enjoy visiting in the UK? Or if you plan to visit a museum after reading this guide? As a fellow art lover, be sure to recommend museums that I can add to my wishlist!

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