Museum City Guide: Jack’s Top 5 Little Known London Museums

August 12, 2013

England

We’re more than half way through my summer ‘Museum City Guides’ series, so it’s time for the other guest post I promised you. When I first discovered Jack’s Adventures in Museum Land, I immediately felt like I had stumbled upon a kindred spirit. Jack’s blog is a personal account of all the museums around the world he loves to visit, with a particular passion for unique and obscure hidden gems, and the occasional museum related recipe. Sound familiar? Although I used to visit London and its museums a lot for work, this was before my blogging days so I have few notes and even fewer photographs. Who better then to ask than Jack, who is based in London, to select a list of Top 5 lesser known London museums. Over to Jack.

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London is a city that is quite literally full of museums. Some claim there are as many museums as there are pigeons in London. This may be an exaggeration; it’s much harder to count the pigeons – if only they wouldn’t fly off! – than it is to count the museums. A quick online search tells me that there are “over 240” museums in the city. An exact number, it seems, is even beyond Google’s powers. With all of these to choose from, where’s a wandering visitor to start? Where am I to start? Even knowing the museums as well as I do it was difficult to keep this list to a Top 5. Hopefully, this little London guide will inspire you to look beyond the Big Museums to the wonderful world of the not-so-big and down-right tiny museums that are just as interesting (and usually much less crowded!). So, without further ado, let’s get to that list!

1. Horniman Museum 

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Horniman Walrus – Photograph by Jack Shoulder

Famed for its famously overstuffed Walrus, the hilariously named Horniman Museum – I can’t be the only one who finds that funny, right? – is full to bursting with everything from Natural History to Anthropology and it even has space for an impressive collection of musical instruments and an aquarium. It’s amazing there’s room for people at all! It’s eclectic collection means it stands up to repeat visits and even though it’s a bit out of the way in deepest, darkest South East London, the trip is always worth it. The museum’s garden offers spectacular views of the London skyline, so if it’s a nice day pack a picnic and take in the sight. However, if you really can’t make it, the Horniman team do digital very well indeed. Their blog brings the often off-beat objects that often languish in the stores to the warming glow of the computer screen. The Horniman Museum is free (apart from the Aquarium).

2. UCL Museums

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Grant Museum Micrarium – Photograph by Jack Shoulder

University College London (UCL) is based just north of the British Museum and is not home to not one, not two, but a whole plethora of museums. There are two though, that really stand out: the Grant Museum (home to a rather chatty glass jar of moles) and the Petrie Museum – a mad professor’s collection of Egyptian artefacts that rivals the Big Museum nearby. I know it’s kind of cheating to have two here but I won’t tell if you don’t. The Grant Museum has a little something special in it – a Micrarium, a place for tiny things. It’s a tiny place for tiny things, with back-lit walls and a mirrored ceiling showing off the surprisingly large collection . It’s amazing! Both museums have that classic cabinet of curiosity feel to them, with all the cases full of fascinating things to make you go “hmmm” whether you’re interested in Egyptian costumes or Fairy Armadillos (no, really, they exist!). If you need to sit down after exploring these museums, there are several green and grassy squares in the area to collect your thoughts in. If, like me, you like squirrels then you’ll probably enjoy Russell Square. The Grant and The Petrie are both free. The Grant is closed on Sundays, and The Petrie is closed Sundays and Mondays.

3. Garden Museum

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Photograph by tpholland via Flickr Creative Commons

The tranquil Garden Museum is just south of the river in a fittingly leafy corner of Lambeth. Just a short stroll across Westminster Bridge, which makes it the perfect way to unwind after battling with the traffic and the tourists to get the perfect picture of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The museum is housed in an old, abandoned church and was set up in 1977 to save said church from demolition. But why is the museum about gardens? Buried in the churchyard is a man called John Tradescant (1570-1638), who was a famous plant-hunter, an intrepid explorer and museum pioneer. Not only did he bring exotic flora to the British Isles, he also brought back his collection of things gathered from around the world which he put on display. Without him, there wouldn’t be museums! The museum is only open until 4pm on Saturdays and charges admission (but you do get a nice sticker!)

4. Cartoon Museum

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Photograph by Abby Yao via Flickr Creative Commons

Just because it’s a cartoon doesn’t mean it’s not art. Just because it’s art doesn’t mean it’s not funny. The Cartoon Museum encourages visitors to laugh out loud when they see something that tickles them, which is such a refreshing change to the stuffiness of some of those other art galleries you might visit when you’re in London. The cartoons on display aren’t just for kids, after spending time with the characters from the Beano and Dandy you’ll feel your inner child trying to get out no matter how old you are. There’s also an impressive display of historic cartoons and caricatures too if you’re feeling a bit more serious. With pencils and paper dotted around the galleries, you can get creative if the mood takes you. A quick note for the snap happy- you can’t take pictures in the museum due to various reasons around copy right. Sorry about that. It is £5.50 for adults to enter the Cartoon Museum, but under-18s go free!

5. Sir John Soane Museum

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Sir John Soane Museum – Photograph by Jack Shoulder

This one of a kind museum is quite literally brimming over with stuff, all sorts of stuff everywhere! There’s no nook left empty, no cranny unfilled, every space has something utterly entrancing crammed into it. Highlights include the tomb for the deceased family pet and a sarcophagus that was left abandoned on the steps of the British Museum. I’ve been back a few times and each visit unearths a new favourite item. My current favourite is a statue of Ephesian Diana, in case you were wondering. The Sir John Soane Museum is located in Lincoln’s Inn, right in the middle of the city, but is lucky enough to face one of the city’s nicer areas of greenery, which is perfect for a packed lunch. The museum is free, but it can only hold a small number of visitors at a time so prepare for possible queues. (Note: The Sir John Soane Museum is also featured in Adopt-a-Museum)

Other Museums

As I said at the start, there are simply loads of museums in London. So many in fact that it was impossible to keep this list to just five, so here are a few more! Venture east on the District Line to Upton Park, home of West Ham Football Club, and you’ll find The Who Shop, purveyors of all things Whovian – that is, pertaining to Doctor Who, a popular sci-fi TV programme about a time travelling alien known only as The Doctor. Go through the TARDIS in the corner to enter a museum full of props and costumes used in the show. The staff are super-friendly and helpful and know pretty much everything about The Doctor and his adventures. If time-travelling aliens aren’t your cup of tea, then maybe you’d like the Old Operating Theatre at London Bridge, a medical museum that has links to Florence Nightingale. As one would expect from a medical museum, there are some fairly gruesome things on display. Unexpectedly, the smell is heavenly! The museum is a former herb garret and the scent of medicinal plants lingers. If you start to get a bit peckish, Borough Market is less than a 30 second walk away.

Image Sources: Garden Museum   |   Cartoon Museum 

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One Response to “Museum City Guide: Jack’s Top 5 Little Known London Museums”

  1. Nicole Antar Says:

    Lovely article! I’ve lived in London a long time and haven’t heard of some of the gems you mention here. I’ll have to pay at least a couple of them a visit! Thanks.

    Reply

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