Rachel Kaplan’s delightful guide provides timely support for museums off the beaten track in the wake of the recent move to make many of London’s larger and more famous entrance-charging museums, including the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, free of charge. The book provides a wealth of information about the content and appeal of the museums, yet also fuels the readers’ desire to see for themselves. The one problem, almost inevitably with this type of volume, lies with the subjectivity of the selection. Some museums, such as the Museum of London, are arguably too well known to merit inclusion, while others, including the fascinating Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, are inexplicably absent. Nevertheless, an admirably wide range of museum types is presented, catering to a diverse range of readers. It is useful for numerous demographics, from those looking for a child-orientated outing that involves more than looking at dinosaurs to those who might want an unusual alternative to tours of stately homes.
Despite the Horniman Museum quibble, inclusion of quirky South London venues including the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Cuming Museum, the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum and the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum provides a laudable exception to the prevalent North and West London bias exhibited in virtually all London guides to tourist attractions and events. While the three latter entries are marginal collections that deserve the praise and exposure they receive here, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a highly significant art collection. It is also an attractive and unusual building in the stunning setting of Dulwich Village, just down the road from Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s one-time London residence.
To focus upon the Dulwich Picture Gallery entry as an example of Kaplan’s achievement, she successfully conveys the Gallery’s significance and history in less than four pages: the collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century paintings and its pioneering status as a museum. She also incorporates some of her trademark obscure facts, such as the story of the theft of much of the original bequest of William Cartwright’s paintings. Kaplan also correctly emphasizes the importance of the Gallery’s Shakespearean connection: it was founded by the thespian impresario Edward Alleyn and it possesses the sole surviving portrait of Richard Burbage, the first “celebrity” Shakespearean actor. It might perhaps also have been of significantly general interest to mention that Dulwich College is the home of Philip Henslowe’s Diary, a unique and priceless sixteenth-century survival that has granted early theatre scholars most of their knowledge of the stage business in Shakespeare’s day.
Hammering home the truism that visitors see more of London than residents, this book is a useful and attractive guide for tourists and Londoners alike. It is also a fascinating book of trivia and history that may be dipped in and out of for pleasure without ever having visited or intended to visit the museums. A wealth of detail means that it is not exactly a handbag or pocket sized volume but it is portable enough. The combination of color and black and white illustrations is both evocative and useful. The unusually sumptuous visual element succeeds in encapsulating the elusive spirit of venues such as the eccentric Sir John Soane’s Museum and beautiful Kenwood House in Hampstead. Though such details do age frustratingly quickly, more detailed information on practicalities such as admission prices (where relevant) and refreshment options would have been helpful.
This book forms a useful supplement to familiar general publications, such the Rough Guides, which do not have the space to enter into such textual and pictorial detail on individual collections. Kaplan’s elegant and deceptively simple prose distills an extraordinary amount of scholarship into a compulsively readable form. It is an uncommon pleasure to read a guidebook marked by such a rigorous intellectual element as well as clear evidence of comprehensive first-hand knowledge and enthusiasm. On the basis of this work’s quality, Rachel Kaplan’s other guides, to Paris, Berlin and Rome, will prove equally helpful, and many other European cities, particularly Prague and Amsterdam, would also merit her attention.
– Emma French
(Rachel Kaplan is a contributing writer for culturevulture.net.)