There are a lot of weird museums in London. Big names like the British Museum and Natural History Museum – with their Egyptian artifacts and dinosaurs – are great, but the real fun is in seeking out the capital’s alternative and quirky institutions.
You’ll find fewer queues and crowds, and you’ll leave feeling informed, captivated – and possibly a bit queasy. So get stuck in to our guide of the best weird museums in London and prepare to get freaky.
And for more inspiration, take a look at our round-up of museum shows we’re most excited about in 2017.
Our favourite alternative museums
Be warned: the UCL’s museum of zoology isn’t for the faint of heart. Elephant skulls, jars of moles, shark vertebrae and bisected heads are among the gruesome exhibits on display. For added shivers, head to one of their evening events, like their regular ‘Dead Life Drawing’ sessions (£8), where you can improve your drawing skills by sketching something stuffed or pickled.
This Victorian house is probably so under the radar because it’s only open for a couple of months each year, when hosting one of its quirky temporary exhibitions (the current show, Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, runs until April 23). But with its magnificent neo-Gothic halls, hangings and stained glass, this place has plenty to captivate on its own terms.
Don’t expect anything you see to make a lot of sense – instead, just let your jaw drop to the floor when you see all the bizarre things piled together in this weirdest of wunderkabinetts, including Happy Meal toys and celebrity stool samples. Their regular menagerie nights give you the chance to pet some interesting creatures too, like lizards and tarantulas. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
You’ve got to love the Victorians’ habit of travelling the world, collecting every shiny thing in sight, and then returning to Blighty to show it all off. In the 1860s Frederic Leighton commissioned his friend, the architect George Aitcheson, to build him a house for this purposes in Holland Park. Here, he stashed all his classical acquisitions, as well as his own art and that of his contemporaries. Venture inside, and you’ll find the very model of nineteenth-century opulence.
Nearly 200 years ago, Isambard Kingdom Brunel started work on the Thames Tunnel. It opened in 1843, gathered a crowd of 50,000 Londoners on its first day, and has been a hugely popular attraction ever since. At the Brunel Museum, on the Rotherhithe side of the river, you can delve into the story behind this spectacular feat of Victorian engineering. Sadly the tunnel is now used, ironically, for the Overground. But guided tours will still take you into the humongous entrance chamber, and every once in a while it plays host to gigs and screenings.
In a pair of unrestored Fitzrovia townhouses, you’ll find this quirky collection dedicated to the world of play. And no, it’s not all Barbies and Kens: you’ll find some downright creepy displays of board games, marbles, puppets, wax dolls, dolls’ houses. Oh, and the world’s oldest teddy bear, and an Ancient Egyptian toy mouse, made out of Nile clay.
Restored with original fixtures and surgical instruments, the UK’s oldest purpose-built operating theatre sits in an attic at the top of a Southwark church. Climb a vertiginous wooden staircase, and you’ll find yourself transported back to the world of nineteenth-century medicine, when surgery tended to involve things like brandy and hacksaws. Yet another one to avoid if you’re squeamish.
At the front of Lloyd Park, in oh-so-fancy-these-days Walthamstow, William Morris’s family home – where he lived as a frankly bratty little kid – is now a very fine museum dedicated to the arts and crafts maestro’s life and legacy. Aside from the sumptuous fabrics, prints, furniture and wallpaper to dribble over, you should keep an eye on the programme of late events, which includes workshops, poetry readings and DJ sets.
Not strictly a museum, more of an immersive, living exhibit, the late American eccentric Dennis Severs set out to tell the story of a fictional family of Huguenot silk-weavers in this Spitalfields townhouse. Okay, the historical facts might be a tad iffy – but the ten rooms here send you on a wonderfully evocative journey, down to the fresh fruit ‘left by the family’ on the kitchen table.
Two illustrious figures have lived at Fitzroy House. One was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw; the other was sci-fi supremo and Scientology founder and L Ron Hubbard. This museum is dedicated to the eccentric author and his output. (You’ll have to head to the Scientology Centre on Goodge Street if you want your thetans measured, mind.)
The famous Austrian shrink moved to London in 1938 after fleeing the Nazis. It has changed very little in the years since: a slice of Habsburg Vienna slap-bang in the middle of Hampstead, where you can see his collection of antiquities, and the world-famous couch upon which his patients shared their thoughts, dreams and neuroses.
Here’s where Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne lived with his family in the late nineteenth century, in the very epitome of genteel, well-heeled Victorian middle-class living. Curiously, it’s the humdrum stuff here that’s really fascinating: stuff like Sambourne’s bills and correspondence.
Please note the museum is currently closed while it is being relocated.First a resource for medical students, this institute turned into a public museum in the 1930s. Its staggering collection of over 45,000 objects tells the long story of pharmacy and medicine, from leeches and mummified hands to the discovery of penicillin.
More reasons to visit London's museums
Not only do London’s museums hold some of the world’s most dazzling collections, they’ve also upped their game when it comes to temporary exhibitions. Here are the shows we're getting excited about in 2017.