During the Spring Break of my junior year, I went on a faculty-led program to London, England. The trip was led by Dr. Marjorie Och of the Art History Department of the University of Mary Washington. We visited the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, and many other incredible institutions. Along with visiting the institutions in the curriculum, students had to visit an additional monument or cultural institution and prepare and present a report on some aspect of the cultural institution.

Course Description:
London is home to some of the world’s finest cultural institutions, and these will be the focus of our site visits and your short reports. This course examines contemporary issues and practices in London’s museums, including the history of collections, current collecting policies, methods of interpretation, exhibition spaces, audiences and communities, institutional purpose, disaster planning, and building a future. We will also focus on the collections themselves, and your presentations will bring together what you have researched on both the object and the museum. We will meet on-site at museums, historic homes, and contemporary art galleries. Some discussions will also be held at our hotel prior to site visits and in the evening at group dinners.

Course Goals:

  • Students will gain an understanding of and ability to critique how museums, specifically art museums, are more than a collection of objects
  • Students will become familiar with important aspects of the history of museums and museum practices
  • Students will develop an appreciation for London’s central role in the history of museums in the West as well as to museological practices today in both the UK and USA

Course Objectives: Upon completion of the course students will be able to:

  • Explain how a city such as London presents its own history and identity through its museums
  • Analyze how museum collections can be tools for nation building at different moments in history
  • Synthesize scholarship on the history of museums and art collecting in London
  • Draw comparisons between art collecting and exhibiting in the UK and the US

Day 1: March 4, 2018: How does a city curate itself?

We arrived at Heathrow airport at 6 am and our first stop was to the Museum of London.

The Museum of London was opened in 1976 by Queen Elizabeth II and displays the history of the magnificent city from prehistoric times to present day. The museum tells the story of the city in hopes to display their passion for their city and inspire other people to look at London in a new light and contribute to the city’s international, educational, cultural and economic impetus.

The items above only show part of the time span the large collection of the Museum of London covers. Next, we visited the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great. The church adjoins St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and incorporates architectural techniques the span over centuries.

Our last stop of the day was St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s Cathedral, designed by Christopher Wren, is the highest point in the city and held many celebrations, such as the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth II.

Day 2: March 5, 2018: What makes a national” collection?

The next day, we went to the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. While exploring, we examined how a national collection means to display the documentation of the history and culture of its country and provides essential evidence of the development of the nation.

Above are pictures of the Natural History Museum, which displays the skeleton of a great whale. The way London museums present their history is through their vibrant collection and unique buildings in not one, but many specialized museums. Next, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where we had the first set of group presentations. The V&A is home to over 2.3 million objects, as it contains decorative arts and designs that span over 5,000 years.

Day 3: March 6, 2018: What are the connections between empire, nation, art, and museum?

Our next visit was the British Museum, which has 10 curatorial and research departments and houses around 8 million artifacts. One of the biggest controversies surrounding the British Museum is the method by which they have acquired their artifacts. Some say that the artifacts were taken by unorthodox means pieces from their homeland. The Parthenon Marbles provide such an example. During the extraction of the Parthenon Marbles, the Acropolis was a Ottoman military fort, and Thomas Bruce obtained a decree allowing him to take the marbles, but the original copy was never found.

Day 4: March 7, 2018: Understanding how England curated it monarchy beyond museums

Our next stop took us out of London to Windsor Castle, which was built after the Norman invasion by William the Conquerer. The castle is especially notable for its long line of monarchs who resided in the castle and St. George’s Chapel, the resting place of many notable rulers, such as King Henry VIII and his favorite wife, Jane Seymour. A really nice feature about this was that we had a guided tour of outside the castle, but then we had audio tours for the interior of the buildings, which allowed visitors to go at their own pace.

Day 5: March 8, 2018: Building a national art gallery and a gallery for the community

Our next museum was the National Gallery, an art museum that houses over 2,300 paintings from the mid-13th century to 1900. And just like Windsor, the tours were audio guided, so visitors could go at their own pace to anywhere in the museum. After the National Gallery, we went to Whitechapel Gallery, a contemporary art gallery that was different than the usual historic museums we had experienced earlier.

Day 6: March 9, 2018: What have we missed?

We started the day off by visiting the London Transportation Museum, which had a very fun interactive map that you had to collect stamps for as you went through the different collections. After the London Transportation Museum, we went to the Courtauld Gallery, which specializes in Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.

After the Courtauld Gallery, we went to the London Silver Vaults and Sir John Soane’s Museum. Along the way, we saw a dragon, which marks the boundaries of the original city, and we stopped in a few tea shops, one of which was the famous Twinings Tea.

Before meeting for dinner, I went to the Tate Modern Museum, a modern art museum, as my extra museum visit requirement. Modern is a certain political and social know that one must keep up with in order to understand some of the art. The Tate had a very interesting display of art that was themed around color. The exhibit description asked the visitors what emotion one feels when looking at a color and if color helped to see shapes or movements. I liked this room because it engaged the viewer to think on personal and almost spiritual level, and reflect on the art.

Day 7: March 10, 2018

Our last day in London. Before heading to the airport, we went to the Chiswick House, which is known as the birthplace of the English Landscape movement. We walked around and came upon a flower market.

My study abroad trip to London was academically and culturally enriching. The museums and galleries of London displayed their heritage and culture through their art and design, which gave great insight to London as a historic site and city.