The Top 11 Exhibitions To See In London: May 2023

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 12 months ago

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Last Updated 30 May 2023

The Top 11 Exhibitions To See In London: May 2023

Looking for an awesome London exhibition this May? Here's our roundup of must-see shows in the capital.

1. Glittering gold: Luxury and Power at The British Museum

© Todor Dimitrov, National Museum of History, Bulgaria

Luxurious items have always been symbols of power, and they played a massive part in the Persian Empire — where tents were filled with jaw-droppingly beautiful gold and silver items. This dazzling British Museum exhibition tells how Persian bling merged with Western tastes, after Alexander the Great defeated the Persians.

Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece at The British Museum. 4 May-13 August, £15.

2. Reverential: Saint Francis of Assisi at The National Gallery

Saint Francis painted by El Greco. © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Who was Saint Francis of Assisi, and why does he pop up in so many religious paintings? The National Gallery has the answers, as it charts how Francis has been depicted from medieval wall panels, through to a 1980s Marvel comic cameo. There are also works by Caravaggio, Botticelli and Antony Gormley — all taking inspiration from the life of the canonised one.

Saint Francis of Assisi at The National Gallery. 6 May-30 July, free.

3. Macabre: Hunterian Museum re-opens

Image: StoneColdCrazy in creative commons

This beloved (albeit somewhat gruesome) central London museum finally re-opens after closing for a major refurb back in 2019. It contains an eye-opening collection of the anatomical and the surgical — a curious, unsettling place where glass cases bristle with dissected toads, sections of spinal cord and half of Charles Babbage's brain. Fascinating but not for the faint hearted. Read our full preview.

Hunterian Museum, Lincoln's Inn Fields. 16 May onwards, free.

4. Platform art: Monster Chetwynd at Gloucester Road station

A previous installation by Monster Chetwynd. © Monster Chetwynd, courtesy Musée D'Art Moderne Et Contemporain, Strausbourg.

The disused platform at Gloucester Road tube station has been used for a previous art installation that involved a giant fried egg, by the artist who went on to place a drone on the Fourth Plinth. Now comes the time for irreverent and playful artist Monster Chetwynd. Formerly Marvin Gaye Chetwynd — and before that Spartacus Chetwynd — she sure likes a name change. Her work takes inspiration from the 1851 Great Exhibition and includes a humorous faux-documentary — plus sculptures decorated with underwater creatures.

Monster Chetwynd at Gloucester Road Underground station. 18 May 2023-May 2024, free.

5. Departure lounge: Jiro Osuga at Flowers Gallery

Copyright Jiro Osuga.

How does an airport departure lounge make you feel? Is it the thrilling beginning of an overseas adventure, or the most teeth-grinding place on the planet? Jiro Osuga has transformed Flowers Gallery into one — painted with hundreds of fictional characters — and whether you bliss out or stress out, is up to you.

Jiro Osuga: Departures at Flowers, Kingsland Road. 18 May-1 July, free.

6. Station-arty: Sarah Sze at Peckham Rye station

A previous installation by Sarah Sze. Copyright the artist.

Arts organisation Artangel have a knack for bringing installations to exquisite spaces, and they've done it again here by placing work by Sarah Sze in the old waiting room at Peckham Rye station — a space that's gone unused for 50 years. Lines and flickering screens create an installation that reflects on the age of the smartphone. Looks eerily enchanting.

Sarah Sze at The Old Waiting Room, Peckham Rye station. 19 May-16 September, free.

7. Change of clothes: The Offbeat Sari at Design Museum

Seen as everyday wear by some, and wedding attire by others, the sari has long been a fixture of life on the Indian sub-continent. Now, contemporary designers are taking this traditional clothing in bold new directions, and this exhibition shows the diapason of saris, as well as looking at how the garment has been used as a tool for social activism and a metaphor for India's stratified society.

The Offbeat Sari at Design Museum. 19 May-17 September, £12.60

8. Art on the roof: Crisis at Bold Tendencies

Richard Wentworth's existing installation will remain. © Bold Tendencies. Photography: Quintin Lake

As well as being home to a great rooftop bar, this multi-level car park in Peckham has played host to artworks since 2007 as part of the Bold Tendencies program — all to be experienced while soaking in views across London. It's back for another year with the theme of 'crisis' — both social and environmental. New works mix with the existing pieces already in place from previous years, plus there will be orchestral performances over the spring and summer.

Crisis at Bold Tendencies. 19 May-16 September, free — live programme events will be ticketed.

9. A new look: Re-hang at Tate Britain

Photo by Rikard Österlund

Tate Britain has switched up its permanent displays after 10 years to reflect how the world has changed around it — this includes new acquisitions, and ensuring half the work on display is by women artists. This doesn't mean we will lose old favourites, so works by Turner, William Blake, John Constable, the Pre-Raphaelites and Barbara Hepworth remain on show. They've just got new peers hanging alongside.

Tate Britain re-hang. From 23 May, free.

10. Snap happy: Photography Centre - Part Two at V&A

One of the works that will be in the new galleries. © Naoya Hatakeyama

The V&A has an extensive photography collection, and opened a fantastic photography centre with no less than seven galleries in 2018. Now it's time for phase two — an additional four galleries have been added to the centre, featuring a walk-in camera obscura and a timeline of how cameras have evolved.

Photography Centre - Part Two at V&A. From 25 May, free.

11. Super cool: The Polar Silk Road at Natural History Museum

© Gregor Sailer

As the Arctic sea ice melts, it will open up new trade routes, which will subject the area to greater travel, research and exploitation. Gregor Sailer's photographs capture this changing environment, including striking images of the buildings designed for the Arctic climate.

The Polar Silk Road at Natural History Museum. Opens 26 May, free.

Short run events

Martin Parr is this year's master of photography at Photo London. Copyright Martin Parr.

A couple of art fairs arrive in London this month with the gargantuan Photo London taking over Somerset House (10-14 May, from £22)  with photographers and photography galleries filling every space in the venue, including the courtyard. This year's special 'master of photography' display will be dedicated to Martin Parr and his snaps of everyday life.

A shot from last year's Affordable Art Fair in Hampstead

Hampstead Heath plays host to the Affordable Art Fair (11-14 May, from £10) where you may find the piece for your home that you've been looking for, thanks to a wide range of international galleries showcasing their artists.

And to check out work that art students are making as they start out on their journey, City & Guilds London Art School* will be showing the fruits of their foundation students (17-20 May, free), and we get to see the culmination of their course.

* Disclosure: the author of this piece is a trustee of City & Guilds London Art School