Friday, June 17, 2005

Late Nights in London Museums

As an old friend once remarked, “I’d rather see a mediocre exhibition on my own than a good one in a crowd.” Blockbuster art shows are not for the faint hearted, ordering tickets, waiting in line for security, waiting in line for the coat check, waiting in line for a gallery guide only to finally arrive in a room heaving with people bunched up uncomfortably in front of the artwork. Even as you move through the over-heated galleries, you begin to wonder - was it worth it. I often console myself with the thought that even if I can not see the paintings, at least mankind has not completely surrendered to “reality TV” and all is not lost when Raphael, Whistler, Turner or Monet can still give Rupert Murdoch a run for his money.

Still, thanks to the late night option at most major museums in London, there is the possibility to view many great exhibitions in relative privacy. A while back, I had the chance to see a popular exhibition “Encounters - the meeting of Asia and Europe” at the Victoria and Albert with 3 other viewers, one being my husband. We arrived at the V&A on a Wednesday evening shortly before 9:00 following a reception at a law firm. We had an hour before the museum closed. There were tables set up in the foyer with people drinking and listening to live music. It was not crowded. We bought our tickets to the exhibition ( no line) and were encouraged to go straight in. An hour was just enough to see and enjoy everything. As the announcement was broadcast that the museum was closing, we were in the last gallery, stimulated by what we had seen and delighted with the experience. It was a small epiphany. “From now on”, I thought, “I’ll go to museums at night.

Most of the major museums in London offer late night openings. The British Museum stays open until 8:30 on Thursdays and Fridays, the National Portrait Gallery until 9:00 on the same days. The National Gallery is open until 9:00 on Wednesday and as previously mentioned, you can enjoy the V&A collections until 10:00 on Wednesday and the last Friday of the month. It is a good idea to call ahead to make sure that what you are going to see is open as not all of the galleries are. In fact, calling is always a good idea. The last time I dragged my 9 year old niece across London with the promise of a great morning of Egyptian antiquities, we sadly discovered a one day strike of the museum guards. An emergency switch to shopping and street theatre in Covent Garden almost made up for the disappointment but from now on, I’m going to call - and, whenever possible - go at night.

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