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. Think of this as the Noah Arc equivalent of London's numerous medical museums, including the Hunterian and the Old Operating Theatre. It's macabre, yes, but there's every chance you'll learn some fascinating stuff thanks to a visit here.
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.
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.
Venue says London’s most intriguing museum was the final home of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. Visit and see Freud's iconic couch!
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. Another one to avoid if you’re squeamish.
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.
This Kennington museum only opens its doors for guided tours if you book in advance. But believe us, it’s worth the faff. There’s a gargantuan collection of posters, projectors, cinema carpets, fanzines, memorabilia and over 17 million feet of celluloid to peruse.
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.
And as if by magic… another unusual museum appeared. If you’ve got a trick or two up your sleeve, this is the place to visit. Located at the Magic Circle Headquarters, its prized possessions include Harry Houdini’s handcuffs and the belongings of legendary magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Sadly, you can’t abracadabra yourself in whenever you please. Book an appointment in advance via their website.
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.
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.
In the quest to be considered the most fan-tastic of all London museums, Greenwich’s Fan Museum has an obvious head start. The fans here date back to the 10th century and the displays change throughout the year. According to the Victorian ‘language of fans’, drawing a fan across the cheek meant: I love you. Practice it, because after a trip here it’ll be your main method of communication.
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.
In the 1860s Frederic Leighton commissioned his friend, the architect George Aitcheson, to build him a house in Holland Park to keep his extensive collection of antiquities and artworks. 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.
Here’s where Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne lived with his family in the late nineteenth century. It's the very epitome of genteel, well-heeled Victorian middle-class living and, curiously, it’s the humdrum stuff here that’s really fascinating: things like Sambourne’s bills and correspondence.
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