London is pretty densely packed with museums. Ask any visitor to London, and they can reel off ten museums that they’re hoping to visit….the Science Museum, the V&A, the British Museum. What most visitors don’t realise is that there’s a whole lot more museums that they may never have heard of. Museums celebrating the macabre, the unholy and the downright obscure. You may not be a local, but with this guide to the weirdest museums in London, you’ll feel like you are!
10. Wellcome Collection
This museum was created out of the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome who was, by all accounts, somewhat of an eccentric. As well as changing the face of modern medicine by inventing the tablet, he also traveled widely and had a penchant for dressing up. Not anything weird, you understand…just the odd Native American headdress or maybe a monk’s robe. Somewhere along the line, he amassed a huge collection of artifacts, mostly related to medicine. A small part of the complete collection is on display at the Wellcome Collection building today – there are thousands of glass jars and other objects still stored elsewhere.
The permanent collection includes a real mummy, a torture chair and Napoleon’s toothbrush. Other pieces around the building showcase the work of contemporary artists such as Anthony Gormley and the temporary exhibitions cover a wide range of subjects. Recent exhibits have included “Skin”, which may have caused a few first-aid calls after visitors fainted, and “Death”. This is not for the faint hearted! But it’s a fascinating take on medicine and science’s relationship with art. There is also the “Medicine Now” gallery, with interactive exhibits. A fun one for the whole family, but be prepared to answer some awkward questions from the kids!
9. The Fire Brigade Museum
When a museum operates an “appointment only”policy, you know it’s going to be a bit on the obscure side. The Fire Brigade Museum occasionally holds Open Days, when the doors of the quiet-looking townhouse are flung open to reveal a host of Fire Brigade memorabilia inside. They have firefighting demonstrations outside and visits from the “Fire Dog”, to the delight of small children. But just when you think you’ve seen everything you need to see, you cross the courtyard to find a garage full of vintage fire engines, with firefighter uniforms to try on. An interesting, if unassuming, slice of London’s history.
8. The Fan Museum
A museum so obscure it’s almost become famous for it, the Fan Museum is home to 3,500 fans. “How much is there to know about fans?” you may ask….for the answer, you’d have to head to this 18th century building in Greenwich. Stocking fans from the 11th Century onwards, it’s an ideal trip for the fan fan in your life. What’s remarkable is the 3,500 aren’t even the full collection – the collection is rotated so that only 3,500 are displayed at any one time. The afternoon teas there are meant to be good too.
7. Cuming Museum
Another South London oddity, this is a brief patch of culture in the urban wasteland behind a condemned council estate. The museum was founded by the Cuming family in 1906 and tells the story of the Southwark area of London through the eyes of the Cuming family. Like Henry Wellcome, the Cumings delighted in collecting obscure things and this museum houses the assorted treasures they brought back from every corner of the world. The centrepiece of the first room is a majestic taxidermed bear, which can be unnerving in a darkened room. There’s a surprising amount to see and do in the small space, with dressing up for the kids and craft activities. You can even make your own pearly king!
6. Hunterian Museum
There’s more taxidermy on display at this museum attached to the Royal College of Surgeons. Unsurprisingly, the exhibits have a surgical theme to them and again, it’s not one for the squeamish. Joining the human remains are some animal skeletons and Winston Churchill’s dentures. It’s a celebration of London’s strong medical history and provides the training ground for the surgeons of the future
5. Horniman Museum
The Horniman Museum isn’t an obscure museum by any means – it’s a large and busy one, hidden in the depths of South London. But it’s certainly a weird one. Its centerpiece is a large taxidermed walrus, and there’s a room of taxidermed exhibits surrounding it. Taxidermy seems to be a theme in these London museums, doesn’t it? It seems like it was the popular thing to do in 19th century London.
The Horniman also features an aquarium in the basement, with starfish, anemones and jellyfish. It’s much cheaper than the London Aquarium and just as interesting, especially the coral reef tank full of brightly colored tropical fish. As well as the taxidermy and fish, there’s a large gallery devoted to musical instruments, with a hands-on room where you can bang tubes with a flip-flop or scrape wooden toads with a stick. Then there’s 16 acres of grounds, including ornamental gardens, food gardens, a bandstand and outdoor instruments. During vacation times, it’s overrun with school children and they pack out the wrought-iron conservatory having picnics. An eclectic collection and a long trek from Central London, but well worth a visit.
4. London Film Museum
Take a step away from the crowds of tourists surrounding the London Eye, and step inside the huge complex County Hall. Within its shadowy hallways, you’ll find the London Film Museum.
It doesn’t look like a traditional museum – it’s more of a series of corridors and small rooms than one space. But it contains some real gems from the film world – from one of the original Star Wars sets to the dinosaur skeleton from Night at the Museum. The Harry Potter series gets its own room and is suitably spooky. There’s not much in the way of interactive exhibits, but there is a create-your-own-car-chase car, which plays chase music as you sit in the car and watch your faces appear on a backdrop of Central London. It’s a funny little museum, but good for film enthusiasts who don’t worry about a lack of natural light.
3. Pollock’s Toy Museum
Another small, dark but fascinating museum. Pollock’s looks at toys from the last 200 years. It has been described as unnerving by those who have visited and felt dolls’ eyes watching them in the dark. It’s been based on Scala Street since 1969 but has been in business since 1956 and is connected to the Pollock’s Toy Theatres shop in Covent Garden. Its current home is two unrestored townhouses knocked together, which helps you feel like you’re back in the 19th century. Despite being all about children’s toys, the cramped conditions mean it’s not ideal for children. But adults will find the collection of teddy bears, jigsaws and dolls intriguing.
2. Garden Museum
Set in the atmospheric church adjoining Lambeth Palace. Inside, the ancient church has been sympathetically restored but retains the glorious stained-glass windows, which pour light onto the cafe area. The cafe, incidentally, serves food mainly grown in its own garden. The museum itself shows exhibits covering the history of gardening in the UK as well as contemporary gardening photography. Like some of the other museums, it only displays a fraction of its collection at any one time, as the 10,000 items the museum owns would never fit into the small space!
It’s an unusual and fairly specialist museum but owns some beautiful artwork that would appeal to anyone. The British have a peculiar attachment to their gardens, so it’s a good place to go to if you’re hoping to understand a bit more about what makes eccentric English people tick! It’s also an easy walk from the London Eye and right next to a quieter part of the Thames, with splendid views of the Houses of Parliament. You might even bump into the Archbishop of Canterbury!
1. Cinema Museum
Not to be confused with the London Film Museum, the Cinema Museum is a small collection with the emphasis on the film-going experience rather than the film itself. Set inside an ex-workhouse building in an obscure part of South London, it is another appointment-only museum except for special events and Open Days. Exhibits cover the history of cinema from the 1890s to the present day and include vintage projectors and classic movie posters. The guided tours are even led by guys dressed as ushers!
There is a small screening room, where they sometimes show classic movies, and an upstairs area where they hold special film-themed evenings. One recent evening had well-known film critics discussing obscure 1960s horror movies, while visitors feasted on “severed arm cake” and other gory delicacies! It’s as eccentric a museum as you can get, is entirely staffed by volunteers but is a memorable experience, that’ll leave you feeling nostalgic for the golden days of cinema.