By  on December 28, 2001

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.

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