People who want to get from London’s University Library to Covent Garden and want to get out of the rain, or perhaps are in a hurry, take a route through the British Museum. You are greeted by a guard on the way in, pass through the Gallery of Living and Dying in the Great Court, go around the old Reading Room and walk out the other side. You don’t have to hand in your umbrellas – and you certainly don’t pay entry.
And who knows where a person’s curiosity might take them once they enter the world’s oldest museum? They could look into the Islam gallery, or the gallery of the cafe devoted to Coptic Christianity – a route which leads through hordes of excited schoolchildren as this is also the way to the much loved mummy section.
What a contrast to Berlin’s Museum Island. Once one has got through the transaction at the pay desk and arrived in the Bode Museum, the squeak of shoes is the only sound – that or a reprimand for wandering between the sculptures with a coat hung over an arm. The feeling is of being an invader – one wishes that it was a little like in London where the museums are filled with life, curiosity, business and joy.
There are 13 British national museums, nine in London, as well as countless private museums such as the Saatchi Gallery, the University Museums in Oxford and Cambridge or the city museums of the Victorian industrial cities like Manchester and Liverpool, which invite people in for free – and nearly all without the German institution of a closed day each week.
The result is that London museums play a big role in the lives of the people. Not only do more people go to museums, they go more often, in a more relaxed manner, and also just for 20 or 30 minutes. “Even the women are more elegant,” said Martin Roth, the new German director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
He can hardly believe his luck to be in charge of the super-cool museum which once advertised with a slogan saying it was a cafe with a nice museum attached.
“How I fought in Dresden to reduce the barriers. German museums fear for their intellectuality and scientific reputation, are scared of losing their identity.” Roth tripled visitor numbers in Dresden, but failed in his fight against the weekly closed day. But, he said, German museums envy their British colleagues for their style and elegance.
No wonder. The free entrance is the basis of a museum culture which plays a central role in London’s position as a global capital city, centre for art and the most popular tourist destination in the world.
What is decisive is how these museums contribute to London’s civilised, relaxed urbanity. Ladies meet for tea at the world’s oldest museum restaurant at the V&A, and then take a stroll through the Renaissance gallery. On late opening Thursdays, disco music fills the halls and one can stand next to Giambologna’s Samson, a glass of champagne in hand. In the National Gallery civil servants from Whitehall take a quick look at their favourite painting during their lunch break. And where better to meet for a rendezvous than in the pulsating Tate Modern?