What It’s Like Visiting London’s Museums Again

After nearly four months of being closed, museums and galleries across England were able to reopen their doors at the beginning of July. While it took the CBA Content team – me and Rachael – a month to book our return visits, it was well worth the wait.

To follow in our footsteps and see what it’s like visiting London’s museums again, read about our individual experiences below. First up is my trip to the V&A, then Rachael takes us to the Tate Modern and finally, a visit to the Queen’s House.

The V&A, South Kensington

The Victoria and Albert Museum holds a special place in my heart. I went there when I studied abroad in London in 2010. I used to spend afternoons in its National Art Library. I’ve brought my sister and mom there, who could spend the whole day in the gift shop. And before lockdown, I used to go often, with friends on Friday nights or just to walk around on my own.

So when they reopened on August 6th, I was among some of the first visitors in line. It wasn’t a planned trip, as I booked a ticket online the morning of, however that only added to the magic of the day.

Waiting to enter the V&A.

The entry process was seamless and not crowded – having a designated time slot helps everyone stay at a safe distance from others throughout their visit. Once inside, I was greeted by a lovely, facemask-donning guide. You could almost feel her excitement for being back in the museum. We were all so happy to be standing in the sculpture hall again, able to see the fantastic fashion display, ceramics, paintings and many more cherished objects.

Since only the ground floor was open, the guide explained that you could walk freely around the rooms or follow an online self-guided trail (architectural tour, Britain and the Caribbean tour and more). After talking more though, she recommended I check out her favourite rooms: the Cast Courts.

Michelangelo’s David, standing more than five metres tall in the Cast Courts.

For the next two hours, I was spellbound by the reproductions of Michelangelo’s David, Raphael’s School of Athens, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and the huge Trajan’s column, which is displayed in two pieces as it wouldn’t fit under the 25-metre-high ceiling.

With no crowds to snake around, it was like a private step back in time. The Cast Courts transported me to Italy and the Renaissance, much like they’ve been doing for Londoners since 1873.

The mosaic floor, nicknamed ‘Opus Criminale’, between the Cast Courts.

The best part? Spending most of my visit in these two magnificent rooms and not rushing to see something else. Stopping to learn about why reproductions of art are important and how they influence artists today. Noticing the mosaic floor between the courts for the first time and reading about the women convicts who built it. My first museum trip after lockdown is one I will never forget: quiet, eye-opening and enchanting.

Tate Modern, Bankside

Despite museums beginning to reopen from the start of July, it’s taken me a little while to ease back into visiting. I was waiting to hear some feedback from fellow culture-lovers on London’s museums’ procedures so I could make my mind up on how safe it was to go back.

After reading some glowing reviews, and seeing photos of amazingly empty galleries on Instagram, I decided to take the plunge at the Tate Modern. While my experience will hopefully help ease any worries about the safety of visiting galleries and museums, remember we are still in a pandemic: wear a mask, keep your distance, and only do what you feel comfortable doing — it’s okay if you’re not ready to make a visit!

Kara Walker's Fons Americanus sculpture
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus (2019)

Upon arrival at the Tate Modern you’ll need to enter through the Turbine Hall entrance. This is actually something of a bonus: you’ll get to see Kara Walker’s impressive sculpture Fons Americanus right away! You’ll show your e-ticket for your allocated time-slot (free for the main collection, but must be booked in advance) at the entrance, where there’s also a hand sanitiser dispenser so you can clean up before you head in.

Staff and visitors need to wear a face mask at all times, and it was great to see this religiously adhered to throughout my visit. A one-way system has been arranged through the galleries, which didn’t feel unnatural or restrictive. You’d most likely follow that route on an ordinary visit and it was a great encouragement to explore side rooms you might otherwise have missed. It also incentivises you to spend more time with the art in a room before moving on since you can’t double-back to see it again.

Evelyne Axell's Valentine painting
Evelyne Axell, Valentine (1966)

The gallery was a little busier than I expected for a Monday morning, but there was still more than enough space to socially distance while enjoying the exhibitions. There’s no time limit on your visit so you can stay as long as you want, but Tate is strict on arrival times. Don’t turn up too early for your time slot or you’ll be asked to wait outside.

The good news is that, unlike some other galleries, it isn’t hard to get a ticket. I booked on the morning of my visit and still had my pick of time slots, so it’s a great option for a spontaneous gallery trip!

Yinka Shonibare's The British Library installation
Yinka Shonibare, The British Library (2014)

I shared a few highlights over on Instagram — I was particularly enthralled by Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library, and Igor Grubić’s film installation East Side Story (not pictured).

Overall, this was a fantastic way to ease back into the museum world post-lockdown. I felt safe, relaxed and confident that the experience was well-managed by the Tate team.

Queen’s House, Greenwich

After a successful visit to the V&A, I was excited to plan my next art-filled adventure. The Queen’s House in Greenwich had recently reopened with a rare reunion of the Armada Portraits, the three surviving portraits of Queen Elizabeth I after defeating the Spanish Armada.

The exhibition, Faces of a Queen, opened briefly before lockdown and luckily returned for a few weeks in August and September. Having never been to this classically-designed gallery before, I quickly realised the house contains a lot more art and historical significance than I imagined.

Walking up to the Queen’s House in Greenwich Park.

The building itself is an architectural masterpiece. Walking up to the gallery entrance – which was virtually empty on this August Bank Holiday – was a painting in itself.

Once inside, all visitors follow a one-way system, beginning with an impressive collection of art by Van Dyck, Reynolds, Canaletto and more. Since the entry times are staggered, there were never more than six people in a room at a time. It felt like another private tour. It was magical.

Faces of a Queen exhibition at the Queen’s House.

We got to see the Armada Portraits after a wander around the Great Hall. A very welcoming tour guide, wearing a mask and standing a safe distance away, told us about the iconic portraits and how amazing it is to see them next to each other for the first time in history (the other two were on loan from Woburn Abbey and the National Portrait Gallery).

The rest of my visit was filled with royal family portraits, maritime sculptures and to my pleasant surprise, contemporary art pieces. In fact, it was in a room full of Stuart style paintings that I saw my first Kehinde Wiley (Wiley is the American artist who painted Obama’s portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery).

Ship of Fools by Kehinde Wiley.

Stepping out into Greenwich Park after the Queen’s House visit, I felt London’s majestic embrace. Seeing and experiencing the city’s art and heritage again had restored a sense of adventure, wonder and discovery.

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