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Inside the transport museum's depot
Photograph: Steve Lancefield

The hidden spaces in London museums that visitors never see

From an underground chamber to a library of bones, the capital’s museums and galleries are home to all sorts of surprises. You’ll be baffled at what goes on behind closed doors

Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

If you’ve lived in London for a while, chances are you’ve been able to explore a decent number of the fantastic museums and art galleries we have right here on our doorstep. But did you know that there’s also a whole lot of hidden spaces in these buildings, some of which the public are occasionally allowed to visit? We don’t just mean offices and archives – we’re talking about rooms full of pickled animals, laboratories and basements stacked with fascinating objects that usually stay behind closed doors. Intrigued? Here’s our behind-the-scenes guide to the best secret spaces in London’s museums and galleries. 

Somerset House: The Deadhouse

People looking at a wall underground
Photograph: Philip Vile

Aptly named the Deadhouse, this eerie-looking chamber sits in an underground labyrinth of vaults and secret rooms beneath Somerset House, holding funeral monuments dating from the 1630s to 1690s that were originally from a Roman Catholic chapel used by Henrietta Maria (Charles I’s wife) and Catherine of Braganza (Charles II’s wife). Now, the space is hired out for events and filming, but you’re able to get a sneak peek if you hop on the Somerset House Studios and Historical Highlights tours. 

Somerset House, WC2R 1LA.

Natural History Museum: The Spirit Collection

Animals in jars with people looking at them
Photograph: Trustees of the Natural History Museum London

Are you into pickles? Not onions, kimchi or eggs, but alcohol-preserved animal specimens, like the 22 million housed in the Natural History Museum’s sci-fi-esque Spirit Collection. Highlights include an 8.62-metre-long giant squid named Archie, penguins from early-twentieth-century Antarctic expeditions and a Fijian bar-winged rail bird that’s thought to be extinct. If you want to learn more about the many weird and wonderful creatures of this hidden zoological collection, you can book a behind-the-scenes tour with the museum's science educators via its website.

Natural History Museum, SW7 5BD.

National Gallery: The Scientific Department

David Peggie using Agilent Chemstation Software for Dye Analysis
Photograph: The National Gallery Photographic Department

Although paintings and pigments might be the first things that come to mind when thinking about art conservation, science also plays a huge part in this highly specialised process. Pictured above, National Gallery scientist David Peggie is using ’agilent chemstation software’ to analyse dye in the musuem’s private Scientific and Conservation Department. That’s just one of the many processes that scientists have to carry out to ensure old paintings are preserved properly, as well as other complicated-sounding tasks like radiography and infrared reflectography to help detect original sketches hiding under layers of paint. 

National Gallery, WC2N 5DN.

Museum of London: Rotunda Osteological Store

A woman and boy examine a skull
Photograph: © Museum of London

Although at first glance it looks like a warehouse full of cardboard boxes, the Museum of London’s bone store is home to skulls, skeletons and other spooky bodily remains. The collection of more than 20,000 Londoners’ bones dates back to the prehistoric era and includes artefacts up until the mid-nineteenth century – together with remains from the Black Death and the Roman empire. How’s that for a graveyard? 

Museum of London, EC2Y 5HN.

London Transport Museum: The Depot

Trains in a depot
Photograph: Steve Lancefield

Did you know that 320,000 objects from the London Transport Museum’s collection are not normally on show? The museum’s depot in Acton Town houses everything from buses and trams to artworks and signal frames, and although it’s normally shut to the public, it occasionaly opens for selected weekends and small group tours. Keep an eye on its website to find out when you can next plan some super-rare trainspotting, Francis Bourgeois-style. Make sure you don’t miss the RM1 prototype – one of the first models for the iconic red London Routemaster bus – as well as original wooden printing blocks of the TfL typeface used to print posters and transport signs back in the day. 

London Transport Museum Depot, W3 9BQ.

Science Museum: Conservation Lab

Someone painting a model of the human body
Photograph: Science Museum

Hidden away deep in the basement of the Science Museum, specialist conservators are hard at work in the lab caring for historic objects – from super-modern spacesuits to Roman ceramic votives. They also manage pests and get items ready for loans and displays, so it sounds like a pretty varied job. Recently, conservators ‘stabilised chalk dust’ on Stephen Hawking’s blackboard from his office at Cambridge Uni – talk about fiddly!

Science Museum, SW7 2DD

Secret wonders of London to seek out on your next walk.

Things to do in London this weekend.

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