Caitlin Weigel makes going to free museums cross-cultural.
LONDON – Perhaps the most magical four-letter word in the English language is “free.” Nothing seems to capture the attention of college students quite like the F-word. It doesn’t even matter what it is – if it’s free, count me in.
Free lanyards and pens from the bank? Yes, please. Free cheese samples at Di Bruno Bros.? Absolutely. Free concert in Rittenhouse Square by some dude I’ve never even heard of? I’m there. Free temporary tattoos that feature a personified polyp giving a thumbs up? I’ll take 10.
The only thing that makes free sweeter is when the item is actually something awesome, like more than 25 museums scattered throughout London. From dinosaurs to Chinese art, London’s free museums have something for everyone in the free-stuff-loving category.
Considering I’m a total sucker for weird taxidermy and traditional museum dioramas, London’s Natural History Museum is one of my favorite spots. I can’t decide what’s better – hanging around the animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex, marveling at the life-size replica of a blue whale or watching small children press their noses against the glass of the exhibits while asking dumb questions. They’re all equally enjoyable and a great way to spend time on a rainy London day.
Another favorite is the British Museum. The inner lobby features a dazzling white ceiling that makes visitors feel like they’re in some kind of NASA heaven. The collection at the British Museum is huge. After three hours, I still hadn’t made my way through half of it, and I began to wonder whether anyone would notice if I took a nap under the gift shop’s T-shirt racks. Egyptian cat mummies, Grecian statues, German watches from the 1500s – the artifacts in this museum make the Liberty Bell seem brand-new.
In the category of most obscure free museum, the Sir John Soane’s Museum is a clear standout. Founded in the 1800s by an eccentric architect and collector, the museum features samples of Roman and Grecian art and architecture. The museum is in the back of Sir John’s townhouse, a home he designed specifically to display his collections. The curators have kept everything authentic, including the lack of captions (so people don’t get caught up in reading and forget to be inspired) and electric lighting (visitors explore the catacomb-esque basement by candlelight).
Beyond the price tag, or lack thereof, museums have plenty of other perks. They’re great people-watching spots, ideal places to pick up some extra knowledge and the perfect spot to spend rainy afternoons.
If you’re looking to do any of the above while exploring Philadelphia, here are my recommendations.
My absolute top pick for free museums is the Wagner Free Institute of Science. This place is 100 percent free since there are no transportation costs, and it’s just a short walk from campus. You’ve probably never noticed the beautiful, slightly eerie building on your Friday night party commute, but nestled on the corner of 17th Street and Montgomery Avenue lies a North Philadelphia treasure. The museum is full of creepy, yet interesting taxidermy animals and bug specimens, all with the original handwritten captions from the 1800s by the museum’s founder. They actually advertise themselves as a “museum of a museum.”
You can also hit up the Philadelphia Art Museum on 26th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The last Sunday of every month marks pay-what-you-wish day – the slightly less attractive, but still pretty cool cousin of “free.”
With all the money you’re saving, maybe you can splurge on a sweet key chain from the gift shop or a pair of glasses you can take off and chew on while you admire the art.
Caitlin Weigel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.