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Leighton House Museum hall
Anthony Webb / Time Out

14 weird but wonderful museums in London

Visit one of London's lesser-known museums and discover their quirky hidden treasures

Written by
Ashleigh Arnott
&
Matt Breen
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There are a lot of strange museums in London. Big names like the British Museum and Natural History Museum – with their Egyptian artefacts and bits of dinosaurs – are great, but the real fun is in seeking out the capital’s alternative and more oddball institutions.

You’ll find fewer queues and crowds, and you’ll leave feeling informed, captivated and possibly a bit queasy. So get stuck into our guide of the best weird museums in London and prepare to get freaky.

Our favourite alternative museums

  • Museums
  • History
  • Kensington

Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne lived in this house with his family in the late nineteenth century. It’s the very epitome of genteel, well-heeled Victorian middle-class living (ironic, given that Sambourne also took some pretty explicit nekkid photographs of pretty ladeez). Curiously, it’s the humdrum stuff here that’s really fascinating: things like Sambourne’s bills and correspondence.

  • Museums
  • Military and maritime
  • Rotherhithe

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 (that’s south), you can delve into the story behind this spectacular feat of Victorian engineering. 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.

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  • Museums
  • Film and TV
  • Elephant & Castle

This Kennington museum only opens its doors for guided tours if you book in advance. But believe us, it’s worth all the faff. There’s a gargantuan collection of posters, projectors, cinema carpets, fanzines, memorabilia, plus more than 17 million feet of celluloid film to peruse

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Spitalfields

Not strictly a museum, more of an immersive, living exhibit, the home of late American eccentric Dennis Severs tells the story of a fictional family of Huguenot silk-weavers in Spitalfields. Okay, some of the historical facts might be a tad iffy – but the ten rooms here send you on a wonderfully evocative journey, down to fresh fruit ‘left by the family’ on the kitchen table and a chamberpot full of authentic Huguenot wee. Quelle horreur!

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Fan Museum
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Greenwich

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 tenth 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’. Practise it, because after a trip here it’ll be your main method of communication.

  • Things to do
  • Literary events
  • Hampstead

The famous Austrian shrink moved to London in 1938, fleeing the Nazis. His house 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. ‘Tell me about your muzzer.’

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  • Museums
  • Natural history
  • Bloomsbury

Be warned: the UCL’s museum of zoology isn’t for the faint of heart. Elephant skulls, jars of moles (really), shark vertebrae and bisected heads are among the gruesome exhibits on display. Think of this as the Noah’s Ark 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 here. 

  • Museums
  • History
  • Holland Park

In the 1860s Frederic Leighton commissioned his friend, 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. There are occasional events, including music recitals in Leighton’s large and handsome upper-floor studio.

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  • Things to do
  • Cultural centres
  • Euston

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 in Euston, its prized possessions include Harry Houdini’s handcuffs and the belongings of legendary magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. Sadly, you can’t just abracadabra your way in whenever you please. Book an appointment in advance via its website.

Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society
  • Museums
  • Science and technology
  • Wapping

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 (in Paddington!) of penicillin.

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Old Operating Theatre Museum
  • Museums
  • History
  • London Bridge

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.

  • Museums
  • Childhood
  • Fitzrovia

In a pair of gaunt unrestored Fitzrovia townhouses, you’ll find this quirky collection dedicated to the world of childhood and 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.

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The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History
  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • Hackney

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 wunderkammers, including Happy Meal toys and celebrity stool samples. The regular ‘menagerie nights’ give you the chance to pet some interesting creatures too, like lizards and tarantulas. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

William Morris Gallery
  • Art
  • Public art
  • Walthamstow

In 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, you should keep an eye on the programme of late events, which includes workshops, poetry readings and even DJ sets.

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