From 'blockbuster' exhibitions to specialist shows, there's something for everyone in London's main museums in 2013, writes Peter Watts
Every year, a list of London's most popular tourist attractions is published by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, and every year London's major museums – most of which are free – dominate the top ten.
Top of the pile is inevitably the British Museum in Bloomsbury, which draws nearly six million people through its famous doors, often to see its legendary 'blockbuster' exhibitions. There are two of these in 2013. In spring, the museum holds 'Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind', which will present some of the world's oldest sculptures and drawings alongside modern works by Henry Moore, Mondrian and Matisse to demonstrate how ancient art influences contemporary artists. Then comes 'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum', with 250 stunning finds from the Roman cities destroyed by Vesuvius in AD 79, the first exhibition on this subject in London in 40 years and one of the undoubted highlights of 2013. The museum will also be home to an exhibition on 'Shunga', a type of Japanese erotic art, and on 'Colombian Gold', as well as numerous smaller exhibitions, talks, screenings, tours and events. It's a popular place for good reason.
If you combine the visitors attending the three South Kensington museums – the V&A, Natural History Museum and the Science Museum – you'll find they are even more popular than the grand old BM. The V&A in particular is famed for the quality, depth and charisma of its exhibition programme. This spring it launches 'David Bowie Is...' – costumes, artwork, photographs and handwritten lyrics that celebrate the pop icon's influence in fashion, sound, graphics, theatre and film. Almost as glamorous is 'Treasures of the Royal Court: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars', which looks at some of the incredible items traded between Britain and Russian in the 16th century. The V&A celebrates summer with 'From Club To Catwalk', a look at London fashion in the 1980s, and ends the year with 'Pearls', a stunning study of spectacular jewellery from the Roman Empire to the present day.
British designer Sir Paul Smith is commemorated at the Design Museum; the famous Northern Lights; Sir Michael Caine turns 80
Across the road from the V&A is the Natural History Museum, housed in its glorious neo-Gothic cathedral. It will spend 2013 commemorating the centenary of the death of scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, who is often overlooked as the co-discoverer of evolution, having published a paper on the theory with Charles Darwin a year before the publication of On the Origin of Species. There will be a monthly lecture series about Wallace, and a new Wallace Discovery Trail to see some of Wallace's most important specimens.
The NHM's major exhibition for 2013 is 'Extinction: Not The End Of The World', which examines the role extinction plays in evolution and looks at endangered species. A huge attraction every year is its 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year' exhibition, and in 2013 they will also be holding another photographic exhibition, 'Genesis', featuring the work of renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado.
Last of the South Ken big three is the Science Museum, whose major exhibition is winter's look at the 'Large Hadron Collider', the remarkable invention in Geneva which is attempting to recreate the Big Bang in one of the greatest scientific endeavours of our time. There will also be continuing exhibitions on pain relief, codebreaker Alan Turing and the BBC's 90 years of public broadcasting. A new Media Space also opens in June and begins with 'Revelations: Experiments in Photography', an exhibition that will explore contemporary artists' responses to scientific photography from 1850 to 1920.
The Large Hadron Collider is explored by the Science Museum; the British Museum pulls in the punters with two blockbuster exhibitions
Across London from South Kensington is the Design Museum, the UK's only collection devoted to contemporary design and architecture. They kick off spring with 'Designs of the Year 2013', a showcase of the world's best designs in architecture, digital, fashion, furniture, graphics, transport and product. Summer brings an exhibition curated by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, who designed the 2012 Olympic torch and whose exhibition looks at everyday objects from a tennis ball to the £2 coin. The year ends with a landmark exhibition on British designer Paul Smith, whose career has spanned 40 years and has resulted in an iconic, colourful but very English brand of fashion. The exhibition will examine Smith through the different stages of the production of a catwalk collection, showing how decisions are made and where Paul Smith the man and Paul Smith the brand connect.
Another British icon getting the exhibition treatment in 2013 is Michael Caine, whose 80th birthday is marked by a display at the Museum of London focusing on key moments in his life. Caine was born in London and the exhibition promises to explore how his upbringing as a rebellious working-class Londoner influenced his career. Later in the year, the museum will hold a major exhibition on the Cheapside Hoard, a priceless cache of 16th-century jewels and gemstones discovered in a cellar in 1912. These remarkable treasures will be displayed in their entirety for the first time since their discovery.
The Museum of London Docklands, a beautiful collection of material related to East London and the Thames, celebrates its 10th birthday in 2013. It will do so with a programme of events – including an evening that celebrates British seafood, from the oyster to jellied eels, and a cycling tour of the East End art scene – as well as a photographic exhibition, 'Estuary', which looks at the outer limits of the Thames, the eastern wilderness where the river meets the North Sea.
London, in fact, boasts one of the world's great museums devoted to the sea, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. 'Turner & The Sea', which closes in April 2014, offers the chance to examine JW Turner's dramatic paintings of water, something that preoccupied him throughout his life. Summer brings 'Visions of The Universe', a fascinating look at the way artists and photographers depict the universe, from early drawings inspired by the imagination to cutting-edge photographs from the Hubble telescope. A new permanent gallery, 'Nelson, Navy, Nation', looks at the 18th-century British Navy and Lord Admiral Nelson. Another new permanent exhibit is 'The Great Map', which will bring the museum's largest open space to life with an interactive world map that visitors can use to discover more about some of the most famous, infamous and exciting events in Britain's rich maritime history.
Up the hill from the National Maritime Museum is the Royal Observatory, a wonderful collection of clocks and telescopes with amazing views over the Thames. It also holds exhibitions, and 2013 brings 'Alien Revolution', a small exhibition that looks at the way aliens have been portrayed in art and literature. It forms part of the Observatory's 'Alien Season' that includes planetarium shows, public talks, special events, workshops, cult classic sci-fi movie screenings and courses. The year ends with the always stunning 'Astronomy Photographer of the Year' competition, which celebrates the best in astrophotography from around the world with remarkable images from space.
The British Library has only started putting on exhibitions in recent years, but they've already produced some memorable and thought-provoking ones on big themes. 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' looks at the use of state propaganda in modern times through posters, films, cartoons and textbooks, and promises to be a detailed and absorbing look at a thorny topic. The year will end with a major exhibition on The Georgians, timed to commemorate 300 years since George I ascended the throne. If you prefer something more light-hearted, the BL's smaller gallery has exhibitions including 'Murder In The Library', a celebration of crime fiction with some luridly appealing covers, and a display of Children's Literature at the end of the year.
Finally, one of London's most popular museums, the Imperial War Museum, is getting a complete refurbishment and will be closed for the first six months of the year. It reopens in July with a cracking family exhibition, 'Horrible Histories: Spies', which looks at the world of spies and spying from the inimitable 'Horrible Histories' team. There will also be exhibitions on the Architecture of War, looking at how war affects the way people live, and regular screenings of Omar Fast's film, 'Five Thousand Feet Is The Best', about drone operators in Pakistan and Afghanistan.