LONDON -- There is no better time than now for a crash course in British culture, as three museums here show off all that was grand -- and humble -- in the history of this former empire.
The new British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the quirky "Art on the Line" exhibition at the Courtauld Institute Gallery, and the just-unveiled collections at Tate Britain each trace cultural history from King Henry VIII to the present.
Both the V&A's British Galleries and Tate Britain's 15 new and refurbished galleries opened in November, thanks to money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which supports historical entities, and private donors.
While radically different in mood and setup, both museums house permanent exhibitions that serve as elegant time capsules and tributes to the nation's history. Both also offer free admission as part of a government pledge to have free entry to nationally funded museums and galleries.
The 15 galleries at the V&A, which cost about $47 million to restore, track the development of culture, style and taste from 1500 to 1900 through displays of furniture, textiles, dress, ceramics, jewelry, silver, prints, paintings and sculpture.
Well organized and easy to understand, it gives museum-goers the chance to understand history with more than just their eyes. At these galleries, touching is not taboo.
Take the Great Bed of Ware, a British icon mentioned in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and famous in the late 16th century for its awe-inspiring, fit-for-a-giant proportions. In the past, only the dark wood frame was on display. Today, the canopy bed is laid and hung with reproductions of mattresses, fabrics and tapestries from the time.
Nearby, there is a display of wool and silk bed linens and models of the springs and mattresses, with a little sign that invites viewers to pick them up and touch them.
"We wanted visitors to have different ways of relating to the objects on display," said Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Fashion & Textiles at the V&A, and a curator of the exhibition.In the five restored period rooms, visitors can tread on original floors -- the 18th-century room has floorboards that were scrubbed, per tradition, with sand -- and recline on reproduction period chairs. The galleries also boast playrooms where adults and children can indulge in period treats: trying on a hoop skirt and petticoat, building a periodic chair or fashioning a Victorian bookplate.
The new galleries at Tate Britain and the exhibition "Collections 2002-1500: BP Displays at Tate Britain" take visitors on a more traditional, but every bit as exciting journey across the country's artistic landscape. It is an all-new presentation of the national collection of British art, which has been the property of the Tate since the late 19th century.
"Collections" begins with works by Hans Holbein -- Henry VIII's court painter -- and Hogarth, often called the father of British painting.
The rooms flow in chronological order and by theme: The visitor is reminded of Britain's obsession with Italy in the 18th century and the rise of landscape painting. Viewers can see how Victorian paintings mirrored a society's morals, sense of glamour and religion, the impact of French impressionism and how two world wars impacted British artists.
"Art on the Line" at the Courtauld Institute Gallery offers another sort of artistic timeline. It takes place at Somerset House, the former home of the Royal Academy, which from 1780 to 1836 was the venue for the most important annual display of contemporary art, known simply as "The Exhibition."
Each year, it was the place to see and be seen, both for the artists and for the fashionable flock of spectators. In the days before art galleries and dealers, this was the place where the established and up-and-coming artists came to show their latest work, each jockeying for a position nearest to the "Line" or strip of wooden molding eight feet from the floor.
The show, which runs until Jan. 20, is a patchwork of paintings that once hung at "The Exhibition" and are displayed exactly the same way as they were in the 19th century: frame-to-frame and from floor to ceiling. Now, as then, the paintings below the line tend to be smaller, more detailed works, while the ones above are larger and more imposing."This exhibition was a fantasy for us," said curator David Solkin, whose job it was to identify the works that had been exhibited during the Royal Academy years, track them down and decide if they were in good enough shape to be put on display.
The exhibit's 300 paintings are a mixture of styles and subjects: figures from mythology, the Bible and the 19th century stage hang alongside portraits of Lord Byron in Albanian dress and Gainsborough portraits of the royal family.
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