The British Museum is one of the world's great institutions of learning, and the first public national museum ever created. And as such it is perhaps a little forbidding to the visitor! With more than eight million items, it documents not only every conceivable aspect of the ancient world, but also the remarkably acquisitive nature of the British Empire as it sprawled over the Earth in the 18th and 19th centuries, receiving a steady stream of items from soldiers, travellers and explorers as they passed through every inhabited continent. And because the museum was founded so early - 1753 - many of the items it holds are the best exemplars in existence. The original collection of Captain Cook (Britain's greatest explorer), a 1909 Honus Wagner cigarette card, the Fijian mermaid, a 5600-year-old tattooed mummy called Ginger, a Banksy painting of 'primitive man' with a shopping cart, 2 of the only 12 Easter Island statues in international collections, one of only 18 Ife ancient brass head sculptures in existence...the quality and range of the collection stands alone. This means that there is nothing that cannot be explored.
The collection is therefore a little daunting...but it needn't be. Even if you have vaguely wondered about something in the past...be it Japanese culture, Mesopotamia, the odd family tree of Tutankhamun, what mummies are all about, the rise of writing, the evolution of art, why African masks look the way they do - the tour can be tailored accordingly. Even if you have more philosophical queries - 'are we a violent species' for example, or 'why did art evolve', or 'what is a civilisation?' - these can also be addressed. And if you don't have any particular expectations, don't feel bad! You will be taken on a remarkable world tour of the human species, with a coffee break in the middle, and will leave the museum with a much more varied understanding of the habits, quirks, drawbacks and achievements of how we came to be the way we are, and what makes it tick.
If you only go to one museum in the world, this is the one to choose.
"In three hours Dr Lawrence will bring the past to life through stories, wit and incredible knowledge.
What is advertised as a tour of the British Museum is really a guided walk through human civilisation!
Don’t deprive yourself of an opportunity to understand the past, and of course the present, in all its vivid glory." ~ Ophelia (2023)
Museums can be a massive yawn for kids, but they needn't be!
The main problem with museums is that people - and especially children - don't feel that they 'belong' there...that it somehow isn't for them, that it has no connection to them. The past must be taken out from behind glass, and put into modern terms. The idea, therefore, is to use the same material as the adult tour, but in a manner which will catch their attention, and appeal to their taste.
In the British Museum's case, this involves breaking down the history of humanity to the personal level, to explore the embarrassing and often hilarious behaviour of people ancient and modern, to use cartoons, graphics and mnemonics to pique interest, to make them 'hunt' things in art, to really look into the gross, revolting and bizarre nature of the past, and seamlessly combine accurate historical information with repulsive observations that will make it stick in the young mind. So expect farts, stupid hats, explosions, poo, massive idiots, man boobs, peeing out of windows, people who pee purple, naked statues with their tinkles knocked off...all of which hide genuine and correct observation on ancient cultures. And once they have got over laughing at the revolting observation, their minds will latch onto the information much more readily.
As I do for the adult version, these walks can also be 'spun' to reflect specific interests, the interests of older/gifted kids, or specific school curricula - previous one-off walks have included the Silk Roads, Egyptian mummification and the rise of civilisation.
While modern museology is making great strides in how to communicate the past more equably, it's still an academic discipline: kids don't respond to that. And it's a huge uphill struggle with a collection as daunting as the British Museum with its 8+ million artefacts. Unless you are careful, children will come to associate museums with boredom, repetition and a desperation to escape, which means that they won't develop the museum 'habit' when they are older. Even if what they pick up on these tours only touches the surface of what there is to know, it means that they will be more open to museums in the future, and will pique their interests enough to make the connections that matter in adulthood.
The methods that I have developed for this approach are based solely on my experience and personality, but happen to coincide with progressive educational policy that is usually described as behaviourist (quizzes, mnemonics, memorisation), discovery-based (challenges - to find things in friezes or artworks, to look at fossils and work out what they come from, etc) dramatic (interactive; acting out of scenarios and odd activities; involving parents and guardians; handling genuine artefacts) and technological (use of digital media to illustrate context, history and original appearances). Using a combination of these methods, kids as young as 5 can be engaged for hours in a sort of treasure hunt around the museum, culminating in a quiz and rewards for their achievement.
There is no single paper that summarises my approach, but the resources cited here may be of use to get a general sense of what I do:
England's great age and rather acquisitive character means that the collections we have built here are often staggeringly large and extremely good. And also hard to get your head around. Galleries are places one tend to go with a sense of guilt and obligation - you know that one SHOULD go to galleries, but the actual details are baffling, boring or something you do in order to tick it off your list, then get to the cafe and the gift shop as soon as possible. Of course if you are an art connoisseur then that is a different story entirely, but for 99% of people galleries like this one are just a bit much...and that is where I come in.
First of all: don't worry. Second of all: don't WORRY! Paintings in the world's great galleries may be products of remarkable minds, but art is about seeing, not knowing. The works reflect the sentiments we all experience, moving with the times, and swayed by personality and life story as are we all. So you mustn't feel guilty if you don't know something about art, or don't like something, and you mustn't feel bad if you simply don't 'get' what is going on. There is a famous saying about this - here it is - and don't worry, this is the only quote I'll give you!
“Actually I do not think that there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture. Someone may like a landscape painting because it reminds him of home, or a portrait because it reminds him of a friend. There is nothing wrong with that. All of us, when we see a painting, are bound to be reminded of a hundred-and-one things which influence our likes and dislikes. As long as these memories help us to enjoy what we see, we need not worry. It is only when some irrelevant memory makes us prejudiced, when we instinctively turn away from a magnificent picture of an alpine scene because we dislike climbing, that we should search our mind for the reason for the aversion which spoils a pleasure we might otherwise have had. There are wrong reasons for disliking a work of art.”
~ E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art
There is an arsenal of technical details on how and why paintings are painted, the symbolism that they use, the methods employed, and the historical figures in them. However, once you have the basics, you are good to go. So. On this walk I will give you my own shamelessly selected, utterly personally biased, and hopefully amusing (as well as informative) take on European art from the 15th century right the way through to about 1900, which you are free to take as read, disagree with, laugh at, or just bear in mind the next time you are in a gallery like this one. In technical terms we will be looking at Renaissance traditions, the changing audience for art, symbolism, painting technique (-isms), aspects of classical mythology, the emergence of landscape and portraiture, the changing role of art in the European world, social and religious control of imagery, the differing perspectives of the sexes, the appearance of modernism, and the rise of impressionism. And if that all sounds a little daunting, it's not! Art appreciation is not about isms - they are just a convenient handle so that we know what we are talking about. At the end of the day, you - the viewer - is the person that matters, and this tour is as much about finding your personal taste as it is anything else.
Artists we are likely to encounter include da Vinci, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, van Eyck, van Dyck, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Bronzino, Cranach, Holbein, Vermeer, Canaletto, Velazquez, Goya, Hogarth, Fragonard, Turner, Constable, Reynolds, Stubbs, Joseph Wright, Monet, Manet, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, van Gogh, Rousseau, Renoir, Cezanne, van Rysselberghe, Gauguin, Seurat and any other painter we happen to wander by. We will have a coffee break halfway round if you like, to fortify you for the rather busy 1750-1900 half of the tour.
Art is for everyone. Really! This is the best place to find that out!
Sixty-one kings and queens span over 1200 years of British history, defining and defined by the shifting fortunes of this Sceptered Isle. The ancient Celts were overwhelmed by the Romans, whose empire shattered and was replaced by the Saxons who split Britain into pieces, before the Viking invasion that divided England in two before the Norman invasion of 1066 that saw England finally unified under a single king. Since then the great royal houses have struggled for power and influence, all leaving their mark on the nation’s capital: London. This scatter of Celtic farmland and marsh went on to become the greatest and most powerful of cities, influencing the world as the Empire exploded across the globe while Shakespeare wrote his plays and the Tudors stabilised the nation into a global superpower.
This tour takes in some of the major royal historic sites in London, giving something of the colour, pomp and circumstance of royalty through the ages. You will learn about the royal houses, their invasions, their deeds, deceptions and deaths, from the muddy victory of William the Conqueror to the implosion of the Stuart line to the polished excesses of the Georgian era.
You may have heard of many of the players - Henry the Eighth and his six wives, Charles the First who lost his head, and Elizabeth the Second who is the longest reigning monarch in 1200 years. Yet the royal story also includes numerous others whose frequently bizarre deeds and passions shaped their own ends and the future of a nation. Find out who exploded at his funeral, who silly Billy was, who died on the toilet, and who was starved to death in a basement. Even if you are a staunch antiroyalist, the story of English crowned heads is one that should not be missed.
London is built on London - there has been something resembling a town here for at least 2000 years, and perhaps as far back as 5000 years. Mammoths, hippos and woolly rhinos once stomped around what is now the Thames and Westminster. Neolithic and Bronze Age people got it into their heads that the waters were sacred and therefore sacrificed pots, gold and people to it. The Romans turned up (on elephants!) to steal the gold, then stayed to trade and develop the place. A native queen called Boudicca came down to avenge herself on the Romans for their high-handedness; eighty thousand died in the slaughter that followed. The Romans got religion, got corrupt, got cold feet and then left the place to the Saxons, who were happy enough living outside London (because it scared them) but were soon invaded by the Vikings who popped out of Scandinavia and began making nuisances of themselves (although the local girls found them very alluring). Alfred the Great wandered into town on a christianizing mission, then a load of squabbles broke out and when the smoke cleared the Normans were in charge...followed by the Normans-disguised-as-Englishmen, followed by the Welsh, the Scots, the Dutch, and finally the Germans. The thousand years from William the Conqueror (although he was actually known as William the Bas***rd in his lifetime) to the present day is one of the most fascinating in Europe, and I would be happy to show some of it to you. The tour suits kids as well as it can be scaled down in detail and up in grossness to stick in the mind.
London is really a city in thirds - there is the Roman part (Londinium), then there is the Saxon part (Lundenwic) and finally there is Westminster, the city of kings, where royal and religious power crystallised in the 11th-13th centuries. As with all cities, however, its much more complicated than that: 2000 (and maybe 3000) years living on the same spot has made a rabbit warren of a place, as people, areas and institutions rise, fall, disappear, or are endlessly reworked in the aftermath of plagues, fires and an ever-changing populace.
This tour is designed to take you into the liminal shades between the ancient city and the new world order as London expanded towards the West after the Great Fire of 1666, charting the changes in society that were the foundation of modern Britain and its new place in the world. If this all sounds rather dry, it isn't: we cover jousting, plagues, royal scandals, Braveheart, ancient churches, the Peasant's Revolt, the best pub in London (!), the judiciary, architectural history, the rise of the press, crime and punishment and the Thames, and finally we dodge back into the City to examine why the best London is in fact the most hidden London.
This tour can be tailored any way, so if you have a specific historical interest, let us know in advance and this can be worked into the fabric of the tour. A fair amount of walking is involved, and as it is largely on the flat it can be accessed by wheelchair users or if you have a pushchair. It might be of interest to older children but the walk is aimed primarily at adults. Ensure you wear comfortable shoes!
The Natural History Museum is one of the world's earliest and best-known museums of the natural world, and contains more than 80,000,000 specimens that have been accumulated by explorers and scientists over hundreds of years. This is where most of Charles Darwin's collections ended up, along with some of the earliest and most important dinosaur fossils ever found in the UK.
This sounds daunting, but luckily this tour makes it less so! The tour starts with a quick introduction to the basics of evolution and diversity, highlighting the importance of observing characteristics - and what they mean - when looking at life both ancient and modern. We then take a detour through plate tectonics, the shape and nature of Earth, and the place of Earth within the cosmos in order to give a sense of scale and time within which biology and evolution will make sense. The main periods of earth's history will NOT be named because the idea is to give a sense of the patterns, not the details - so we will go through approaches to the past, our own histories, the birth of complex life, the patterns of invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, and using a range of fossils on display (and brought with Dr Owens) to explain how life 'works'.
We will assess adaptive radiations, examine how dinosaurs dominated the planet, then inspect the data for their disappearance and then what happened next. The bewildering world of mammalian evolution will be ordered for you, culminating with the emergence of our own species (using a volunteer as an 'early hominid'!). This line is followed in the human evolution display where we will inspect the anatomical origins of our lineage, then through the wide range of hominid species that preceded us and of which we are the only survivor...although some genes from other species have crept in along the way.
We will look at the spectacular collection of marine reptiles found by Mary Anning and her contemporaries.
The main hall of the NHM is one of London's most extravagant and extraordinary interiors. We will look into the history of the museum and the displays, and will have tea or other refreshments before we hit the dinosaur galleries where we will apply the basics of what we have learned about palaeobiology to work out the likely ancestries and behaviours of the dinosaurs on display. This will then be followed by a quiz to test what you have learned in the time, ending at the extremely extravagant giftshop where you can collect a souvenir of your tour!
This tour can be turned to fit any age: the youngest guidee was 3, the oldest 85! It assumes no former knowledge and is a great introduction to ancient (and modern) life over the past 2 billion years. It also helps introduce major themes in life on earth, and where it might be going in the future.
"Both kids adore(d) Lawrence...tour was an inspiration for us all."
"The kids had a great time. They said it was their favorite part of the trip. Even my 3 year old!"
The British are generally known for their writing rather than their art - you've probably heard of Shakespeare but I doubt that you could describe a Gainsborough in detail. Or would want to, come to that. Other countries snort rather derisively at our artists, and its certainly true that we haven't had a Picasso, a Michelangelo, a da Vinci. But it's not a desert up here in the North - the narrative of how we saw the world through time as we went from marginalised rock to global empire is a fascinating and socially relevant one. This is a run through the evolution of art in Britain, and how it was influenced by the inside and outside world over 500 years. The latter end of the tour takes in the spectacular internationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the proliferation of 'isms that continue to bedevil us today.
This tour can also be turned to appeal to children, although the National Gallery is better suited to a child-friendly narrative.
If you are a diehard art junkie - or would like to become one - then this is the tour for you. It examines traditional art styles of the 16th to 19th centuries in the Tate Britain, then introduces some of the major themes in the modernist movements of the 19th-20th centuries. Major trends, internationalism and artistic styles are all discussed at an accessible level. There is then a break for lunch at a local pub (built on what are allegedly haunted ruins) then a short boat trip through the bustling heart of London to the Tate Modern where we will explode some of the myths of modern art and further explore where art has gone, currently is, and where it is going next. The level of the tour can be pitched at whatever expertise you have, although it may not be suitable for younger children given the duration. In one day you will acquire some of the skills you need to critically assess paintings, or alternatively brush up on art knowledge that you may already possess.
A hundred and fifty years ago a painting was a painting and a sculpture was a sculpture. Yes, there were different styles, but for the most part a good knowledge of the Bible, history, mythology and maybe a few legends would see you through. Somewhere along the way, however, something changed really quite markedly. The art world today must accept pickled sharks, tins of human excrement and unmade beds as serious works of art, and sell them alongside Monets and Picassos, da Vincis and Gainsboroughs. Don't be scared! Modern art is only an elitist 'thing' to our minds because those who own it ensure that it stays that way. The mystery is not as mysterious as it first appears to be! This walk takes us through the rash of 'isms that has characterized the late 19th to early 21st centuries, looks at the changing role of art and the artist, defines how art and society have played with each other, and examines hundreds of world-class works from all over the globe that chart (and define) a changing world.
This walk suits the beginner although it can be presented at every level, including children.
Walks beyond London are also available. Send your requests and we will craft your tour accordingly.
"Thank you very much for organizing and providing a highly enjoyable and very informative tour. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and appreciated your efforts to make it accessible for all ages. We also appreciate your going a bit 'off-piste' and taking us through exhibits we would have missed otherwise."
"...from the very first minute of the tour with Dr. Lawrence Owens it was clear that it is going to be a completely different experience! It was a hilarious and simultaneously educational 3 hours that felt like it was only 15 minutes. Kids and adults alike were sad when the tour ended, just like a great movie we did not want it to stop. Besides being a lot of interactive fun, my kids still remember basically everything they learned during the tour; Dr. Lawrence was able to show them that history and archaeology can be a lot of fun and not just some boring subjects people learn at school. All I can say I wish I had a teacher like Lawrence at school or had taken a similar tour back in my teens. The whole family still remembers Dr. Lawrence and what he taught us and how much fun it was. Can't recommend enough."
"Our guide for the British Museum, Lawrence Owens, was easily the best guide I've ever had for any tour anywhere in the world. While the tour was geared towards kids, my wife and I have continued to discuss things learned despite numerous previous trips to the British Museum. Our children (9 and 6) continue to recite what they learned from Lawrence. Miraculously, he kept four jet lagged travelers focused, engaged, and amazed."
"We had a fantastic time with Dr Owens! We’ve already recommended him to several friends. Please thank him for his time and expertise. It’s a day we’ll always warmly remember!"
"I can unequivocally say that this was the best guided-tour I have ever taken. I have actually taken many private tours all over the world, ever since I got tired of my husband asking me questions that I didn’t know the answers to on our vacations. When I signed up for this I knew that I would be getting an actual archaeologist as our guide. A PhD, and expert in the field – what I was not informed of was that our guide was actually Indiana Jones. I kid you not. Not only was Lawrence a third generation historian and a fascinating expert on the subject matter that made 3.5 hours breeze by like it was 20 minutes, but he is also a field archaeologist. In his spare time you can find him in Syria or Egypt uncovering rare artifacts and mummies. He literally was shot at during an excavation and his bodyguard had to kill an armed looter. He also uncovered the oldest named human in the history of civilization. So there is that. There will be many books authored by Lawrence in the near future. I hope to read them. If you are lucky enough to take a tour from him before Chris Pine or Henry Cavill plays him in the move, good on you."
"Lawrence...We had a great time today and I assure you Matthew learned a lot!"
"Hello Lawrence...sending along some of the pictures from our visit today at the British Museum and National Gallery. We all agreed we had a fabulous day with you as our guide. You are a wealth of information and are great at explaining both history and art in a way that is educational and fun. We will be in touch the next time we are in London...Until Next Time!"
"Our time with Lawrence was the highlight of our trip to London. With his tremendous fund of knowledge and passion for his subject, Lawrence made history come alive in a fun and engaging way. Our kids (6, 10, and 12) were wary of another museum visit, but after their time with Lawrence at the British Museum, they were asking for more another tour with him. We all learned a ton and kids are still quoting 'Lawrencisms'. Best guide ever!"
"During this European trip, we did 2 tours in London and 3 in Paris. Four of those tours were focused for the kids. Lawrence was by far the best guide we had, and he kept the kids engaged throughout the tour. I cannot possibly recommend Lawrence enough."