London’s alternative museums
A unique tour guide at the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London. (Doug McKinlay/LPI)
London’s cultural big-hitters – the likes of the British Museum and National Gallery – are truly world-beating, dizzyingly expansive showcases of art and history.
But size is not everything. London has scores of intimate, specialist and plain eccentric museums, dedicated to personalities, pastimes, occupations and assorted oddities.
Hobbies and collectors
Pollocks’ Toy Museum packs legions of wax and China dolls from around the world – as creepy as they are mesmerising – into two adjacent historic houses. There are also board games, teddy bears, puppets and a curious collection of toy theatres.
Intrigued by early hand-held air-conditioning? The Fan Museum boasts a pan-global collection of more than 3,500 fans, some dating back almost a millennium, created from ivory, silk and even peacock feathers.
The Cartoon Museum focuses more on satire than silliness, displaying caricatures and comic strips dating back to the early 18th Century, as well as modern masterpieces by Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.
Want to know the when, where and hoe of horticulture? The Garden Museum in St Mary’s Church exhibits antique gardening tools and has a charming replica of a 17th-century knot garden.
London’s the spot for a busman’s holiday, with museums devoted to specialities both mainstream and distinctly offbeat.
One for chronometer creators to tick off, the Clockmakers’ Museum is essentially one room whirring, chiming and pinging with the sounds of hundreds of timepieces, from Elizabethan pocket watches to distinctly modern “nuclear” timers.
Housed in a 19th-century ice warehouse, the history of the ice trade – and transport of the chilly product on the Regent’s Canal – forms the heart of the London Canal Museum.
The intriguingly macabre Old Operating Theatre Museum is based around the herb garret and 19th-century theatre discovered above St Thomas’s Church; here, surgeons dashed off amputations and other bloody interventions in near squalor.
Taking clinical gore to another level, the Hunterian Museum exhibits the collection of early surgeon John Hunter, plus later additions – thousands of medical and biological specimens like skulls, teeth, anatomical models and surgical instruments.
Former homes and specialist museums dedicated to the lives of the rich, famous and fascinating give insights into their assorted ids and egos.
The Freud Museum, where the father of psychoanalysis lived during his later years, gives context to Sigmund’s theories. It is still replete with his books, art and, yes, that couch.
The Charles Dickens Museum celebrates arguably the most iconic author of Victorian London, who lived and scribbled here in the late 1830s, recreating aspects of his daily life and career with manuscripts, paintings and original furniture.
Handel House Museum has much the same intention, using period furniture, art and early scores to imbue the 18th-century composer’s former home with the atmosphere that he would have experienced while noodling on the Messiah. As a counterpoint, Jimi Hendrix lived next door at number 23, now the museum’s offices.
Finally, the Londoner-in-the-know’s favourite secret is Sir John Soane’s Museum. It is the essence of London’s finest museums distilled, with archaeological artefacts from ancient Rome and Egypt, works by Canaletto and Turner, and Hogarth’s satirical Rake’s Progress. The uniquely personalised home of architect Soane, prolific in the late 18th and early 19th Century, is unmissable – in turns classically grand and truly eccentric.