A Jaw-Dropping New Museum At Westminster Abbey

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Last Updated 30 May 2018

A Jaw-Dropping New Museum At Westminster Abbey

We're standing beside Henry VIII's parents — or lifelike wooden heads made from their death masks. Nearby are medieval copies of both Magna Carta and Domesday Book. Here is the throne on which Mary II was crowned; there is Queen Victoria's footstool. Fans of royal history will swoon; some will wet themselves.

Effigy of Elizabeth of York, based on her death mask.

We're in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries at Westminster Abbey and, by the glory of god and curator, it is magnificent. Forget — for a brief moment — the cavalcade of artefacts. Everyone should visit these galleries to see the architecture alone.

For the first time, visitors can admire the abbey from its upper levels. The vertiginous view lets us look down on the tombs of kings, queens, poets and philosophers, and the zillions of people processing round the tour route.

Look up, too. Ancient graffiti adorns the walls, while the church's remarkable collection of grotesques and gargoyles can be admired up close.

The galleries inhabit the old triforium, a sequence of rooms that sweeps around the eastern end of the nave. It's remarkable to think that such a lofty, dramatic space has sat here for more than 800 years, mostly as a glorified broom cupboard.

There's a good reason. Until now, the space was only accessible via a narrow staircase, unsuited to the legions of sightseers who visit the abbey every day. This problem was solved with a new tower — the first structural addition to the building since 1745.

The so-called Weston Tower slips in between the buttresses like an ecclesiastical torpedo. It's a peculiar affair, partly reflecting (in both senses) its gothic neighbours while also looking proper modern. We could imagine four of these pinned to the corners of nearby Portcullis House.

Though it looks glassy from the outside, the inner shaft is built from 17 different types of stone, matching the varied materials used in the wider abbey. It's been dubbed the most expensive lift shaft in the world — a fair whack of the £23 million spent on this project. "Meh, this is too busy; too much going on," moaned one journalist as we ascended its 108 steps. We'd beg to differ. The climb is a pleasure of light and angles, with bewitching views both inward and outward.

View from the galleries.

And so to the galleries themselves. What can we say? Dazzling. Mesmerising. They contain 300 objects from the abbey's collection. Almost any one of these would be the centrepiece of a lesser museum. Elizabeth I's corset, Henry V's saddle and sword, even William and Kate's marriage licence... the roll call of royal kit goes on and on.

A half-Nelson.

No question, this place should be on the visit list of anyone with an interest in history or architecture. That's not to say there aren't grumbles. The Abbey's restrictions on taking photographs (you can't) will frustrate many, especially when confronted by the stupendous view into the nave, or the wax effigies who seem to cry out to selfie snappers.

William and Mary. You won't be allowed to take this photo.

Meanwhile, the entrance fees will cause legs to tremble, even before the 108-stair climb. A standard adult ticket to the Abbey costs £20, and an additional £5 is charged for access to the new galleries. The fiver's a bargain for this trove of wonders, but on top of the entrance fee, it's an expensive day out.

Mary II's coronation chair, inscribed with graffiti from Westminster School pupils.

But let's end on a high note. In terms of must-see exhibits, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries rank among the top five museums in London. In terms of architecture, nothing comes close.

The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries open to the public on 11 June 2018. Entry is by timed ticket, which must be bought in conjunction with general admission to the Abbey.