A few friends have asked me if I visit museums when I travel. I understand where they’re coming from – for someone who works in the museum industry, the thought of visiting museums while on vacation might seem like an unnatural mix of business and pleasure. But for those of us museum nerds who welcome this intermingling of worlds, visiting museums is just a requisite part of the travel experience. On my recent trip to the UK, I found myself unsurprisingly drawn to museums and interpretive centres. Here’s what I discovered in my travels:
The Scotch Whisky Experience – Edinburgh, Scotland
Located right next to Edinburgh Castle in the heart of the city, my friend and I expected the Scotch Whisky Experience to be a tour steeped in tradition. Maybe it would even be led by a kilt-wearing Scotsman who would show us their ancient collection of dusty scotch casks. You can imagine our surprise when we were strapped into a barrel like we were at Disneyland and taken on a thoroughly modern audio-visual tour of scotch-making, hosted by this enthusiastic apparition:
Once I got over the initial shock of being strapped into a barrel, the rest of the educational tour was really well done and I was able to absorb lots of scotch-making knowledge (I now know what “peaty” means!).
The Scottish National Gallery – Edinburgh, Scotland
Ever since I was a student in University, “free” has been one of my favourite words. So when my friend and I realized The Scottish National Gallery had free admission, it quickly moved to the top of our to-do list. “Free” and “great quality” aren’t words that you often use in the same sentence, but this was a rare exception. As we toured the gallery we came across works by Renoir, Seurat, Degas, Cézanne, Monet and Van Gogh, among others. Well played, Scotland.
National Museum of Scotland – Edinburgh, Scotland
For two people with Biology backgrounds, the Natural History section of this museum was enough to make our heads explode. This massive room housed what seemed like every species under the sun, and traditional dioramas were displayed shoulder-to-shoulder with more contemporary interactive exhibits, all vying for our attention. Sensory overload was a real concern here – by the time we left the museum we needed to sit down for a few minutes and collect ourselves. Over-stimulation: worth it.
Natural History Museum – London, England
It turns out the Brits love their free museums just as much as the Scots. After waiting in the longest but quickest museum lineup of our lives (it didn’t make sense to us either), we joined the throngs of people in the Natural History Museum without paying a cent. As expected, the dinosaur hall was the most popular and we were herded like sheep through its narrow pathways (we didn’t risk stopping to read informative panels for fear of being legitimately trampled). A unique display in the new Darwin Centre was the interactive Climate Change Wall, which responded to passersby with changes in light and sound, and featured interactive panels showcasing examples of climate change and Museum research. With so much to explore in this historic museum, a few hours just didn’t cut it. I’ll definitely be back.
The London Eye – London, England
The London Eye is more of an attraction than a museum, but it does feature something that could move it into the interpretive centre category: digital tablets in each pod of the giant ferris wheel that showcase an interactive 3D map of London. As your pod moves higher and higher (and your view of London gets more and more amazing), you can touch on buildings in the London skyline and learn more about them. It’s a great way to explore the city when you’re not taking a million photos of the view.
All in all, I was very impressed by the museums I saw in the UK (and that’s not just because many of them were free… although that didn’t hurt). The Scots and the Brits have been in the museum business for quite some time, so it’s safe to say they know what they’re doing. If you can brave the crowds, I highly recommend checking out some of the museums and interpretive centres the next time you’re across the pond – you might even be lucky enough to find something that’ll make your head explode.
– Jason Clarke, Content Strategist