Let's go to a museum!
Do you fancy going? Rather not? Only if it's raining?
Today is International Museum Day, and this blog post is a bit of a love letter. Not an overview of the best, biggest, most spectacular museums. Just my very personal reasons for being utterly smitten with museums in the UK.
This is more of a curious collection, rather than a curated exhibition.
*I updated the links on 28 November 2023 - if any of them don't work please let me know.
Vocabulary: Underlined expressions are explained at the bottom of the article.
Why I love British museums
I went to a museum and never looked back.
The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery was the first museum I went to after moving to the UK. It was the first British museum I didn't visit as a tourist but as a resident. On that first visit, I had shopping bags with me. I was a little homesick, and very tired of city noise. I had just looked at Paradise Circus and felt in need of beauty.
Ever since that first visit, I think that museums are one of the best things about the UK.
Universal free admission
I walked into the museum, a friendly porter gave me a guide to the rooms, and that was that. There was a donations box, a reception desk with audio guides - but no entrance fee.
National British museums have not been charging for regular entry since 2001.
This offers the greatest luxury I can imagine: The freedom to go in, see art, recharge, take a break, bring stillness and wonder to my mind - and be out again in under an hour. A trip to the museum needs no planning, no funds, no big chunks of free time.
Special exhibitions cost money, so do privately run museums, and charities like the National Trust and British Heritage take membership or entrance fees. By the way: The name "The Language Pig" was partially inspired by a National Trust visit. Read the story here.
Yet even when there is no entrance fee, getting a wider range of people into museums has been an uphill struggle. Access to art and education is not only determined by financial barriers.
But you can just go in. For free. Every day if you want. That's a wondrous thing in my book.
You get cake
I wonder if museum cafés are even more instrumental in getting people through the door than free entry.
The café in the Birmingham Art Gallery was a noisy airy space with big wooden tables. There was food, there was (good) coffee, there were groups of people chatting, there were refreshingly un-hushed children.
Museum cafés in the UK are very much alive, and a good enough reason to go and look at art in the first place. The cafés - and bar, in the case of Tate Modern - tend to be bustling places where people meet, play and sometimes just sit and relax. You can sit in a beautiful space, eat cake and read.
You don't even have to look at the art - just look at the building
The Birmingham Art Gallery is gorgeous. The staircase, the rooms, the windows - everything seems to be there just to make you feel inspired. It is a spectacle of a civic building.
See for yourself on the museum's virtual tour.
I am lucky because my husband shares my eclectic and not particularly intellectual interest in public buildings, and museums in particular. Strolling through the Engine Hall of the Tate Modern is a crucial part of every trip to London, and my husband regularly geeks out on Brutalism when we walk along the South Bank. I love the modern buildings as much as the Arts and Crafts frivolity of some country houses or romanesque show-offs like the Natural History Museum. I'm not fussy and easily impressed by a folly.
Art does not have to be "up itself".
My husband has put it like this:
Museums in the UK do not treat you like you have to live up to the standard of the art before you get to look at it.
Museums have an important job: Show people that art (or science) is something everybody can enjoy, not just on a day trip, or with a school group. There are many different types of museums, so find your personal favourites and keep coming back. It does not matter if you "know your art".
And if you're fed up after half an hour, fine. Go and only look at your favourite painting. Or just sit and enjoy the atmosphere in a room. Take a break. Get some inspiration. Eat cake.
Activities that you can do today
1. Curate your own micro-exhibition
Pick some things around the house that you love. Things you find beautiful, or things that have a story, things that make you happy.
What is it?
Why did you choose it?
Record yourself talking about your exhibition, or record the interviews you do with other people.
You can even use the National Museums Scotland series "Collecting the Present" as an inspiration (and do some accent-listening training!).
Or use this "Spring Photo Hunt" activity at the Birmingham Museums Trust to create material for your exhibition.
Print your images out and put them up on the doors around your house. Walk around your "exhibition" and vote for the best picture.
Visiting museums in the UK from the comfort of your home
Many museums in the UK organise online events, feed their Youtube channels or offer virtual tours.
Check out the "big ones":
Yes, I lived in Birmingham for 8 years. So I have a particular soft spot for the Birmingham Museums Trust, which brings together several museums including Sarehole Mill (which inspired Tolkien), the "Think Tank" Science museum and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
And while you're in Birmingham, have a look at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Speaking of gorgeous buildings and beautiful surroundings: This gallery and concert venue is right on The University of Birmingham's campus, a stone's throw from my old office. And while you're there: The Lapworth Museum of Geology is also very good.
Follow your fancy.
I know that some of you are keen knitters, so have a look at the Framework Knitters Museum in Nottingham.
A common topic in Language Pig Sessions: Books. We're a bunch of readers, it turns out. So here are suggestions for those in love with literature:
Go on, explore, discover something wondrous and fall in love.
never looked back = never question a decision
resident = an inhabitant, someone who lives in a place
Paradise Circus = a road system in Birmingham, like a motorway in the city
porter = a person in charge of the entrance to a hotel, museum or similar buildings
donations = something you give to a charity or other organisation (such as money, or clothes)
an uphill struggle = a long and difficult attempt at achieving something
un-hushed = this is a play on the word "to hush" = to silence someone
bustling = lively
civic building = public buildings like libraries, town halls, concert halls or government buildings
geeks out on = to show a very detailed interest in a particular topic
folly = something foolish - in this context: a building that is only built for decoration (for example a little tower in a park that only looks good and serves no purpose)
up itself = being "up oneself" means to be arrogant or self-absorbed (This is NOT a polite expression: Use it at your own risk)
to live up to = do what is expected, rise to a standard
soft spot = a special weakness for or affection for something
a stone's throw = not far away