Top 10 weird museum exhibits in London

Discover the quirky treasures hidden within the city's galleries and museums

In 2012, 5.6 million people visited the British Museum. But ticketed blockbusters aren't what make London's museums the most popular in the world. Their vast permanent collections are free of charge – and too good to be hogged by the tourists. Here are 10 of the city's most unique and idiosyncratic treasures.

Guy the Gorilla at The Natural History Museum

A gentle giant who was the star of London Zoo in his day, Guy arrived in the capital from Africa with a bang, on Guy Fawkes Night 1947. Clutching his hot-water bottle, the young western lowland gorilla was so terrified of the city fireworks that a keeper had to sleep next to him all night. Despite occasionally losing his temper with tourists, Guy was famously kind to the sparrows who flew into his enclosure – he would pick them up carefully, look at them, then let them go. When he suffered a heart attack while at the dentist in 1978, an autopsy revealed that the 240kg bird-lover had been obese. But that wasn’t the end for Guy, whose body was brought to the Natural History Museum and prepared for display. He now presides over the new Treasures Cadogan gallery at the Natural History Museum, where visitors love him just as much in carefully taxidermised death as they did in life.

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Gloucester Road

'Palace of Pills' at The Science Museum

The Science Museum is home to the first steam engine, first computer and first samples of penicillin – great objects that could be classified as some of the most important exhibits in any museum in the world. Easily overlooked among these giants of science is this fascinating and beautiful curio. ‘Palace of Pills’ was built in 1980 out of medicine bottles and syringes by artists Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson. It was used as a model for a poster campaign by the East London Health Project, which was pro NHS and anti big pharma. The pill palace was a warning about the commercialisation of medicine and the power of multinational drug companies – things that London campaigners are still getting exercised about today.

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Knightsbridge

'Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth' at Tate Britain

Beetlemania first hit London not in the 1960s but the 1880s, when legendary actress Ellen Terry wowed the crowds by playing Lady Macbeth in an iridescent dress made out of thousands of real insect wings. Portrait artist to the stars John Singer Sargent persuaded her to sit for him in costume in 1889. The sight of Terry arriving in full winged glory at his Chelsea studio prompted Oscar Wilde to write: ‘The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.’ We think that means he liked it.

ALSO SEE The best of British art from 1500 to the Turner Prize.

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Millbank

'The New Bedford' at V&A

Bohemian artist Walter Sickert spent the turn of the twentieth century hanging out in Camden’s answer to the Moulin Rouge, infamous music hall the New Bedford (pictured in his 1915 painting, above). Here, rowdy working-class punters mingled with the literati to drink and ogle showgirls and relish acts like innuendo queen Marie Lloyd, who could make the most innocent phrase sound utterly filthy. The Bedford’s most talked about showgirl was Cora Crippen, stage name Belle Elmore. She was at the centre of a tabloid-fuelled  mystery when she disappeared in 1910 and her husband, Dr Crippen, tried to skip the country with his mistress disguised as his son. After the dismembered remains of a woman were found in the doc’s nearby flat, he was hanged – though DNA analysis has since cast doubt on his guilt. Sickert’s fascination with the murder of a Camden prostitute saw him accused of being Jack the Ripper, most famously by American writer Patricia Cornwell, who ripped up one of his paintings in her search for clues. Charlie Chaplin and Gracie Fields are both said to have walked the boards at the Bedford. Before it was torn down in 1969, the young Peter Sellers lived in a flat above the theatre on Camden High Street, with his revue-performer mother.

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As new exhibition ‘The Story of Music Hall’ shows, highbrow and lowbrow art, design and fashion meet at the V&A.

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Knightsbridge

'The Ambassadors' at The National Gallery

German painter Hans Holbein hit the big time when he moved to London in 1526, becoming one of the most celebrated portraitists of his era. The two hirsute young hipsters in this 1533 work are Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, and Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur. But they’re upstaged by the weird warped skull in the foreground. The ‘anamorphic’ technique Holbein used means that to see it as a cranium, and not a sinister blur, you have to go to the right of the painting and crouch. Helpfully, thousands of skull-seekers over the years have worn a mark on the floor in the correct spot. Holbein wasn’t just showing off his skills here – the death’s head is a nod to De Dinteville’s motto ‘Memento mori’, Latin for ‘Remember you will die’, a cheery theme in Renaissance art. It’s probably something the young Hans remembered very well as he succumbed to the plague in London in 1543.

ALSO SEE A huge collection of works by masters as Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Titian.

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Leicester Square

Leather resuscitator at Wellcome Collection

Pre-sanitation, falling into the Thames was a mucky business. So spare a thought for the Londoners who were pulled out of it only to have hot tobacco smoke pumped into their bumholes by passers-by. Reviving a victim of drowning by blowing smoke up their rectum seems strange, but it made sense to eighteenth-century doctors, who treated the ‘apparently dead’ with warmth and stimulation. ‘Resuscitators’ like this 1774 model were placed along the Thames like lifebuoys. The Royal Humane Society offered rewards for their successful use, and to landlords who provided tables for emergencies. Astonishingly, it was another 200 years before smoking in pubs was banned.

ALSO SEE Mad historical curios and cutting-edge medical science, like the entire archive of DNA and modern genetics, now freely available at www.wellcomelibrary.org.

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Euston

Londinium plaque at The Museum of London

This marble tablet, found in 2002 in Southwark, is the first record of someone calling themselves a Londoner. Life in Londinium was a risky business. It was founded as a Roman city in AD 43, but burned down shortly afterwards – a metre-thick layer of charred earth under our modern streets marks Queen Boudica’s rampage in AD 60. This stone dates from AD 160, by which time Boudica was long dead (and, as legend has it, buried under King’s Cross station). It was dedicated ‘to the god Mars Camulus’ by one Tiberinius Celerianus, seafarer. Researchers think he may have been thanking Mars for a safe journey. Perhaps he was the first Londoner, bloated with honeyed wine, to find a chariot that took him south of the river after curfew?

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Barbican

Harry Beck's hand-drawn Tube maps at The London Transport Museum

Tube map mash-ups weren’t invented by the digital generation. The first one dates all the way back to 1933 and appeared in the London Underground’s own staff magazine, spoofing the notion that the recently introduced Tube map designed by draughtsman Harry Beck had been modelled on an electrical circuit diagram. Beck had invented this dramatic new style of map in 1931 and pictured here is the design he submitted to London Underground. They turned it down at first, confused by Beck’s decision to simplify the complex geography of London’s netherworld, but agreed to try it out in 1932. The Tube – and countless other underground networks all over the world – still use Beck’s ground-breaking ideas today. And it’s probably the most parodied map in history.The complexities of the Tube have always required innovation. When the first line was opened 150 years ago in 1863, the problem was steam and smoke from the engines. The Metropolitan Railway A class 4-4-0T steam locomotive was built in 1866, with condensing equipment to minimise steam leakage. Presumably this was deemed more effective than the drivers’ solution, which was to ask for leave so they could grow beards in the hope a hairy chin would protect them against the vile stench.

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Aldwych

London tokens at The British Museum

You might feel very twenty-first-century ordering your flat white from your favourite espresso bar each morning, but according to the British Museum, London café culture had a similar boom back in the mid 1600s. Taking clues from a haul of London Tokens – essentially engraved coins issued like vouchers by independent shops – museum bods found coffee houses were thriving on London high streets in the seventeenth century. Known as gossip shops, the cafés saw men pop in for a Turkish brew and catch up on the latest news and tittle-tattle. The owners – facing a shortage of small change during the tumultuous English Civil War – demonstrated an early spirit of recession-hardy enterprise by plugging the deficit with their own embellished tokens. London Tokens can be found in the Citi Money Gallery in the British Museum.
 
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Bloomsbury

Shakespeare's first folio at The British Library

When Shakespeare’s First Folio – the first collected edition of his plays – was published in 1623 it cost £1. That’s no mean sum, as it is probably equivalent to around £100 today. Now, though, it is worth considerably more – the last First Folio to be sold publically fetched £2.5 million at auction and other copies are valued in the tens of millions. Considering its worth, it’s not a particularly scarce book – there are at least 230 in existence – but only 40 or so are deemed ‘complete’ and all are of interest to scholars because their fragility, heritage and previous ownership means each is in some way different to its kin. The British Library owns five First Folios – by comparison, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC has around 80, the largest collection in the world. The First Folio is important for any number of reasons, but it’s particularly valuable because it contains what is acknowledged as one of only two authentic engravings of the author’s face. It was executed by a Flemish artist, Martin Droeshout, who was able to draw on the memory of Shakespeare’s friends, one of whom, Ben Jonson, attested to the portrait’s accuracy in his introduction to the First Folio.
 
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Euston

What's on at?

Museum of London

The history of London, from prehistoric times to the present is told in the Museum of London through reconstructed interiors and street scenes, alongside displays of original artefacts found during the museum’s archaeological digs. Check the website before your visit as a packed programme of temporary exhibitions, talks, walks and children's events is central to the life of the Museum of London.

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Barbican

V&A

The V&A houses one of the world's greatest collections of decorative arts, in such varied fields as ceramics, sculpture, portrait miniatures and photography. Among the highlights are the British Galleries 1500-1900, which are arranged chronologically to trace the history of British design from the reign of Henry VIII to that of Queen Victoria. The major names of each era are highlighted, from Chippendale to Morris, Adam to Mackintosh, and alongside the displays of furniture, textiles, dress, ceramics, glass, jewellery, prints, paintings and sculpture there are computer interactives, objects to handle, video screens and audio programmes. The Whiteley Silver Galleries house collections of European Silver (1400 to 1800), containing more than 500 outstanding silver and gold objects dating from medieval times to the Napoleonic era. The other major displays are English Silver (pre-1800) and International Silver (1800 to the present). Opened in 2006, the Dorothy and Michael Hintz galleries, which are part of the museum's ten-year refurbishment plan, house sculptures from the V&A's existing collections. Located by the Madejski garden, they allow in natural light to show the mix of contemporary and Victorian architecture used in their construction, including the nineteenth-century monochrome mosaic flooring revealed when the 1960s lino was stripped. The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art covers a period that begins with the birth of Islam in the seventh century and ends with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the last century. Much of the work on display is from mosques and can broadly be defined as devotional. The most striking exhibit is the world's oldest dated carpet, the remarkably unfaded Ardabil carpet, made in Iran in 1539. It is viewed through a high tech glass case and light box suspended from the ceiling that is worth going to see itself. The Buddhist Sculpture Gallery displays highlights from the collection, ranging from portable gilded Buddhas to monumental temple sculptures. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Galleries show highlights from the Gilbert Collection of gold and silverware and micromosaics. The Ceramics Galleries tells the story of world ceramics from the earliest Chinese pottery to contemporary craft, with galleries dedicated to architectural ceramics and twentieth-century collections. The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries present the collections in continuous displays that tell the story of European art and design from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Renaissance.

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Knightsbridge

Southbank Centre

This riverside titan of arts and entertainment has morphed and expanded in the past few years securing its position as one of the most attractive cultural hotspots in London, helped by its accessible location and proximity to the National Theatre and Tate Modern. The Southbank Centre caters for the widest spectrum of people and interests, peddling visual art, music, literature events and performance in its several venues – the Royal Festival Hall, The Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall (including the Purcell Room) and the Saison Poetry Library. Recently it has become a go-to destination for foodies too. Skylon, a swanky British-themed restaurant within RFH, caters for those with a bit of cash, while a range of spanking new chain restaurants (Wagamama, Strada, Ping Pong) jostle for attention alongside the pie-touting Canteen.

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Southbank

London Transport Museum

Among the vehicles on display at the London Transport Museum is the first underground electric train, which had no windows because there was nothing to see underground. The trouble was that no one could tell which stop they were at, a glitch resolved by employing an athletic announcer who ran to each carriage at every station, shouting out the stops. Dating from 1890, this is one of several museum exhibits you can board. The design gallery is a tribute to Frank Pick, the man responsible for rolling out the London Underground brand and giving each line its own character. For children, the London Transport Museum has an under-fives play area decorated with Steven Appleby illustrations and the chance to sit in the driver’s cab of a red bus and guide a Northern Line simulator through tunnels and up to platforms – (truth be told, it’s fun for adults, too).

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Aldwych

Geffrye Museum

Housed in a set of 18th-century almshouses, the Geffrye Museum offers a vivid physical history of the English interior. Displaying original furniture, textiles and decorative arts, the museum recreates a sequence of typical middle-class living rooms from 1600 to the present. It is a fascinating way to take in domestic history. The Geffrye Museum also has an airy restaurant overlooking the gardens, which include a herb garden and a series of period garden 'rooms' with period seating (open Apr 1 to Oct 31, during museum opening hours). Tours of the restored almshouses take place regularly, as do children's activities and workshops (see the website for details).

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Haggerston

Science Museum

The Science Museum features seven floors of educational and entertaining exhibits, including the Apollo 10 command module and a flight simulator. The Wellcome Wing showcases developments in contemporary science, medicine and technology. The Medical History Gallery in the museum's attic contains a substantial collection of medical history treasures. Pattern Pod introduces under-eights to the importance of patterns in contemporary science and Launch Pad is a popular hands-on gallery where children can explore basic scientific principles. Exhibits in the Exploring Space galleries include the three-metre-high, 600kg Spacelab 2 X-ray telescope that was flown on British space missions and full-scale models of the Huygens Titan probe and Beagle 2 Mars Lander. Tickets to the museum’s in-house IMAX cinema cost extra. The shop is worth checking out for its wacky toys, while the Dana Centre is the Science Museum’s adults-only centre for free lectures and performance events on contemporary scientific issues (www.danacentre.org.uk).

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Knightsbridge

Natural History Museum

The handsome Alfred Waterhouse building houses a collection that contains some 70 million plant, animal, fossil, rock and mineral specimens. The Natural History Museum’s Life Galleries are devoted to displays on animal life, from creepy crawlies to the plaster cast of a Diplodocus that lords it over the Central Hall. The Earth Galleries explore the natural forces that shape our planet, the treasures we take from it, the effect we have on it and its place in the universe. The museum's wildlife garden attracts urban wildlife such as dragonflies, blackbirds and wrens and highlights inner-city wildlife conservation.

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Gloucester Road

Horniman Museum

An anthropological museum set in 16 acres of landscaped gardens, the Horniman Museum has a traditional natural history gallery – dominated by a bizarre, overstuffed walrus – where the exhibits are displayed in traditional cases with no computer touch-screens in sight. There's also a state-of-the-art aquarium, a collection of around 1,600 musical instruments and an area where visitors can play some of them, as well as a permanent gallery dedicated to African, Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian art. The Horniman Museum provides extensive facilities for families, including a nature trail, weekend workshops and a hands-on base where children can touch museum objects. The gardens offer spectacular views over London. The Nature Base explores the natural world with exhibits including the Horniman Museum beehive.

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Forest Hill

Comments

1 comments
P. Ledger
P. Ledger

I would like tosuggest items in the Cuming Museum on Walworth Road but it has been seriously has been damaged by a roof fire and water damage. It housed many local history artefacts as well as thousands of historic and anthrpological items, most in store.