London's best unsung museums

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  • London's best unsung museums

    Horniman Museum © Paula Glassman

  • Apsley House & Wellington Arch
    This Robert Adam-designed house is crammed with artworks plundered by or presented to Wellington during his career, including some impressive candelabras and a giant neoclassical statue of Napoleon. There’s not much in the way of biographical detail but you’ll pick up plenty while trying to reach the complementary Wellington Arch via a tortuous underpass enlivened by informative mosaics. The Arch itself has viewing platforms and a permanent display about other London arches.
    Best exhibit Wellington’s death mask.
    Apsley House & Wellington Arch, 149 Piccadilly, W1 (7499 5676/www.english-heritage.org.uk). Hyde Park Corner tube.

    Bank of England Museum

    FREE

    Tacked on to the end of the Bank of England, this museum is housed in a replica Sir John Soane interior, the largest of its kind in the world. It offers a good blend of modern, child-friendly attractions and dusty older corridors that the grown-ups will enjoy. The museum tells the history of the Bank and currency in the UK, and there’s lots of stuff about forgery. Best exhibits A bar of gold you can pick up and a full set of NatWest piggy banks circa 1983. Bank of England Museum, Threadneedle St, EC2 (7601 5545/www.bankofengland.co.uk). Bank tube/DLR.

    Benjamin Franklin House
    This creaky old London home of the US politician and scientist focuses on the scientific discoveries he made while living here between 1757 and 1775.
    Benjamin Franklin House, 36 Craven St, WC2 SNF (7839 2006/www.benjaminfranklinhouse.org). Charing Cross tube/rail.

    The British Dental Association Museum

    FREE

    The history of British dentistry (don’t scoff, Americans). Features lots of teeth, plus old dentists’ chairs and oral health posters. The British Dental Association Museum, 64 Wimpole St, W1G 8YS (www.bda.org/museum). Regent's Park tube.Brunel MuseumWithin the elegant confines of this red brick engine house is the tale of the design and construction of the Thames Tunnel, the oldest tunnel in London. Visitors are able to learn of the struggles of fires and floods experienced during its construction, as well as visit the tunnel itself, which runs directly beneath the museum. This was the first tunnel to be dug under a river through soft earth, and is still in use today, as part of the London underground network. The museum is currently celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of young Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who helped design the tunnel with his father, Marc Brunel. Best exhibits There are display boards detailing the historical significance of the engine house, but to get the most out of it take one of the guided tours. Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, SE16 (7231 3840/www.brunel-museum.org.uk). Canada Water tube.Cartoon MuseumChortle your way round this amusing little museum, which displays British cartoons, caricatures, comics and animations. On the ground floor, snigger at time-honoured works by Hogarth and Gillray, WWII cartoons depicting Churchill and more recent subjects of satire: Bush and Blair. There’s an excellent selection of amusing books and cards in the shop, an extensive library and a regular cartooning workshops. Best exhibits Relive your youth on the upper gallery, where the comic strips on display include the Beano, 2000AD and Rupert. Cartoon Museum, 35 Little Russell St, WC1 (7580 8155/www.cartoonmuseum.org). Russell Square tube.

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    Centre for the Magic Arts

    Centre for the Magic Arts
    The Magic Circle Museum has historic apparatus, memorabilia and posters as well as the largest collection of magic books in Europe. Appointment only.
    Centre for the Magic Arts, 12 Stephenson Way, NW1 2HD (www.themagiccircle.co.uk). Euston Sq tube. Appointment only.

    Charles Dickens Museum
    It’s easy to walk past the only surviving London house in which Dickens lived. You have to ring the doorbell to gain access to this unassuming townhouse with just a small plaque to mark it out from its neighbours. Inside, there are four floors of Dickens material, from posters advertising his public speaking to rare editions of his work, in a house decorated as it would have been during Dickens’s tenancy (1837-1839).
    Best exhibit A grille from the Marshalsea jail where Dickens’s father was imprisoned.
    Charles Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty St, WC1 (7405 2127/www.dickensmuseum.com). Chancery Lane or Russell Square tube.

    Churchill Museum
    It’s fitting that the man who had 300,000 people file past his coffin before his state funeral now has a museum dedicated to his life. The Churchill Museum is part of the Cabinet War Rooms, preserved to recreate the Cabinet meetings held below ground in WWII. Churchill’s extension explores both his childhood and career while his voice booms out those famous speeches.
    Best exhibit Churchill’s half-smoked cigars.
    Churchill Museum, Clive Steps, King Charles St, SW1 (7930 6961/www.iwm.org.uk). Westminster tube.

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Users say

40 comments
Jason Page
Jason Page

Why is it that most London musuems are funded by the department of medeia culture and sport but in the provinces councils have to fund there own . yet another hidden london subsidy.

sara
sara

There is also the Florence Nightingale musuem which is really good

Clare
Clare

I'm looking for an exhibition or museum of old office equipment - does anyone know of anything?

Bret Willers
Bret Willers

£16 for an adult is an extortionate fee it should adopt the pricing of an English Heritage site after all it is part of our national heritage. Charge that to the tourists if you wish but not British citizens who contribute through taxes and allowing charities like this tax exemptions.

Sock Monkey
Sock Monkey

I agree with Edgar West. Several of my favourite museums have had tall the atmosphere taken away by modernisation. Most The Royal College of Surgeons has been completely sanitised and many of the exhibits have been removed whilst the Natural History Museum has been dumbed down so 4 year olds can understand it.

London Cultureseekers Group
London Cultureseekers Group

If you are interested in exploring London's museums with other like minded people, then join the London Cultureseekers Group - www.cultureseekers.org. We meet up 3-4 times a month and explore museums, art galleries, visit historical buildings, the theatre and go on guided walks. It's the best way to make friends whilst exploring London.

Maria
Maria

I visited the Clink Museum with a friend last year and we both agreed it was disappointing, with badly designed displays. Information was often difficult to read and there was too much repetition of the same material, as though nobody had considered the overall effect. Not good value for money. This is a shame, as it's a unique site in an interesting area.

George Hart
George Hart

The North Woolwich Old Station Museum closed in January 2009. The station building is boarded up, the yard behind has been redeveloped and the exhibits have been dispersed.

london guy
london guy

Found out today that where the Bramah museum was there is a hardware store. The museum closed a year ago!

CorbeauNoir
CorbeauNoir

Edgar West - It's not about 'vapid contemporary apology', it's about exhibiting objects with a better understanding of their significance. This is obviously more the case with anthropological objects than with anything involving natural history - the Victorians did a good job of physically acquiring objects but there was little if any genuine concern about their function or contemporary significance - it really was literally a 'treasure hunt'. With the prevalence of the internet being 'culturally poor' is becoming less and less of an issue (and in fact saying so is inaccurate - virtually all of the objects collected during the era of Empire are not 'British' at all, so it's not British culture that's being impovershed) , alterations in museums nowadays are made to convey that artifacts did - and still do - hold deep cultural importance as well as being beautiful, and this normally results in a need for compromise in display methods. Objects from natives here on the Northwest Coast are a great example of this - many of the masks they're world-famous for are in fact not meant to be seen unless being used for a dance, much less displayed openly behind glass. Hence you develop communication with the cultural owners of objects and as such alter display methods to enrich the functions of objects - instead of being permanently behind glass, natives might occasionally visit a museum and use those masks in ceremonial dances, for example. It can get very complicated, but the short of it is that those changes you witness are genuinely meant to enrich the functions of museum collections rather than 'sterilize' them as might be interpreted. In the simplest terms, we simply know more now than they did then. In any case, there are certainly many places that continue to pay homage to British Victorian eccentricity (in many ways a museum-worthy subject of preservation in its own right), most notably the Sloane Museum. I don't aim to berate you or anything like that, only to educate. I've been studying this kind of stuff a lot :)

sam
sam

The Wallace Collection is a great art museum that is free and near bond st tube.

Cath
Cath

The Huntarian and Soane's museums are pretty much opposite each other, and a 20-25 min walk from the British Museum. They make a great combination as they are both really unusual but in totally different ways! Around Lincoln's Inn are lots of historic buildings (the Inns of Court and so on) plus the fields themselves are a pleasant place to eat lunch and have a fairly upmarket cafe/restaurant. They make a good combination for a day out in London and are themselves very close to Covent Garden for lunch/dinner. They are my favourite London museums!

Roger
Roger

I agree with Erik. The Museum of Brands and Packaging is well worth a visit. It is a view of social history over the past 100 years or so by reference to everyday items such as food packaging, advertising styles etc. Educational and nostalgic. www.museumofbrands.com

Tracy Nash
Tracy Nash

Horniman Museum Again took my niece there last summer and it was another museum she enjoyed, it has various exhibits, it also has lovely grounds to walk thru on a good day.. Has a basement fukllof aquariums, this museum is ideal for children as well as adult minds

Erik
Erik

the museum of brands and packaging is really cool and should be on this list. it's near notting hill tube and showcases food packaging from the turn of the century to present day.

cara
cara

has anyone been to the Horniman Museum ? am intrigued to go today but don't want to be dissapointed...

Rita Kleppmann
Rita Kleppmann

I visited the Tea and Coffee Museum about a year ago and was seriously disappointed - too many exhibits (i.e. cramped), appalling lighting etc. I could have made a better job of it myself. I´m so glad they are refurbishing - the newly opened Museum can only be an improvement.

John
John

Unlike some of the rather well-known, much-visited museums included in this feature, a genuinely ‘unsung’ museum is the British Optical Association Museum at the College of Optometrists, a delightful Georgian building in Craven Street. Not only are its collections of vision aids, optician’s equipment and all things eye-related of international significance but because its displays are produced entirely in-house they avoid that ‘over-designed’ look that characterises and spoils so many wealthier museums these days. You won’t find a sign on the door and you must book in advance but if you pluck up the courage you’ll not only get a personal guided tour from a genuine expert (tailored to whatever time you have available) but you’ll thoroughly enjoy seeing some wonderful things, both serious and quirky…and all just a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square. In fact, if you discount art galleries it’s the most centrally located museum in the entire capital and I bet most people don’t know it’s there!

Tracy Nash
Tracy Nash

V&A Museum of Childhood I took my 2yr old niece here last summer and she loved it, its is very accessible and not to huge that a smaller child would lose interest. I would reccommend it

jess
jess

Can anyone give anymore information about the viv stanshall museum, i would love to go there and can't find any info about it?

Aimee C
Aimee C

I too have two more recommendations for those with inquisitive minds (seems like most Londoners do from these posts!). The Freud museum is a treat in Swiss Cottage/Finchley http://www.freud.org.uk/ and the Sir John Soan's museum in Holborn in well worth a visit (and it's free) http://www.soane.org/. Liking all the other recommendations - is there ever an end to the things you can do in London!

kevin
kevin

the petrie museum is a must if you love anything to do with egypt

G
G

The Viv Stanshall museum is fun up there in Finchley

manchester city
manchester city

What a brilliant list for people visiting London, my son and I and a friend are coming to London for a short break in February and this is so informative thanks.

Karen
Karen

Oh! You forgot The Women's Library. Which is a museum, as crazy as it sounds ---> www.thewomenslibrary.ac.uk - women's magazines on at the moment.

Steve Hamilton
Steve Hamilton

For those not aware of it, Pollocks Toy Museum (and shop) is run by Peter Baldwin (Derek Wilton in Coronation Street) and his brother.

Joanna
Joanna

It is nice to see Sikorski Museum mentioned. Just a small correction: the bear´s name is not Wojtke - it´s Wojtek.

Fabrizio
Fabrizio

I am disappointed to see the Vault is not included in your list of London's "secret" museums. Until 2001 the vault was where the Royals kept their treasury in the basement of a Coutts bank on Old Park Lane. When this closed down Hard Rock Cafe' relocated their shop there from the restaurant and transformed the Vault in what is now London's only rock'n'roll museum (as of last Summer we have our museum licence), featuring such gems as Jimi Hendrix' legendary "Flying V", the Beatles' harpsichord and Elvis' coat. Entry is free and it includes a guided tour which lasts about 15-20 min. Opening hours are 11am to 11-pm.

John
John

I am surprised that you omitted the Wellcome Institute near Euston Station. Lots of interesting medical stuff, with old artefacts and pictures collected by Wellcome himself. Look at http://library.wellcome.ac.uk/collections.html As they say, "Where else could you find an ancient mummy, Napoleon's toothbrush, Darwin's walking stick, a DNA sequencing robot and a Marc Quinn sculpture under one roof?"

John
John

According to its website, the Leighton House is closed for refurbishment until the end of 2009. Shame, really.

edgar west
edgar west

To my mind the best museums are a museum themselves in that they have not been modernised since Victorian times,which was surely the heyday of museums. I know this comment may be un-pc,as it relates to the British Empire,but the fact is if there had been no collectors,anthropoligists etc with access to a massive storehouse,then we would be alot culturally poorer now. Unfortunately too many museums have been ruined in an attempt to update them,ripping out that great big unrefined & unconscious Victorian 'heart of darkness' & replacing it with a vapid contemporary apology. Apologies for this unreformed rant,i am sure there are many valid reasons for 'modernisation,but i need to state that i do miss those weird old collections 'behind glass cases in musty gothic surroundings,maybe i am some sort of un-reconstructed weirdo that needs 'updating'

Gerrard Roots
Gerrard Roots

How on earth can institutions such as the Design Museum, the Churchill Museum, the Royal Airforce Museum, the V&A Museum of Childhood and the Museum of London, which each receive hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, be described as 'secret'? It would have made a refreshing change if the site had instead included more of of the many museums in the outer London boroughs (like my own- Church Farmhouse Museum in Hendon) which, despite limited funding and scant attention in the London-wide media, continue to present exhibitions and events of interest to more than an immediately local audience. I'm sure that I'm not alone in finding this site deeply disappointing.

Chris
Chris

I would visit the Horniman Museum about once a month when I was a child, it was a great adventure for me and I always found something new. The last time I visited the museum was about 3 years ago and it was still a great adventure.!

Olivia
Olivia

The Foundling Museum is the place to discover at the moment as it has just opened its exhibition "Handel the Philanthropist" to celebrate 250 years since Handel's death. Handel raised £7,000 for children in care at the Hospital by performing benefit concerts in the chapel before he died, which is the equivalent of £524,000 by today's standards!! The Museum holds Handel's will as well as the score and parts of "Messiah" which he left to the Hosiptal, the first home for abandoned children in Britain and in which Hogarth established the first public art gallery! Most importantly seek out the social history gallery which displays the tokens mother's left with their babies when they gave them up for care.

H
H

The Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee Museum is closed until later on in 2009

Gary Byrne
Gary Byrne

The Pollocks Toy museum is OK but not great. The R.A is the best

Em
Em

i would just like to say that if you appreciate things a little unusual, you cant go wrong in Ploocks toy museum... the building itself is an adventure, you feel like alice in wonderland as the celings shrink and rise as you enter the different rooms. its atmospheric, creepy and wonderful! (dont miss the bethnal green museum of childhood either!) also take the backstage tour at the national history museum and see the AMAZING scenes behind closed doors....WELL worth it, and free to boot!

Dave
Dave

This site is invaluable for planning trips around London to visit the lesser known places where the treasures of history are hidden. I have some research to do on Victorian London, and my material cannot be found in any one place, so it was a good source.