17 London museums with a twist
Words by Helen Dorritt
We all know the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are brilliant, but London is also home to a host of smaller, more unusual museums. So if you can’t face the queues and possible crowds of the bigger institutions during the winter holidays, why not try one of these instead?
1 Fashion and Textile Museum
This Bermondsey museum hosts an ever-changing programme of exhibitions that celebrate the best of contemporary fashion, textiles and jewellery. Current exhibitions include a celebration of Norman Hartnell, as well as a retrospective of Zandra Rhodes’ work – appropriate, since she founded the museum in 2003.
Take advantage of our 2-for-1 offer when you travel there by train.
2 Bank of England Museum
If you’ve ever wondered about why we use paper money and how the financial system works, then check out the Bank of England Museum.
Housed in the same City of London building as the actual Bank of England and free to enter, the museum includes the chance to try and lift a real gold bar, see designs of banknotes over the ages and find out how the Bank of England has helped to shape the country’s history.
3 The Fan Museum
With fans dating as far back as the 12th century, the Fan Museum in Greenwich holds a world-renowned collection of these decorative objects – there are so many, it’s not possible for the museum to display them all. Housed in two Grade II-listed townhouses, the ground floor is a permanent display that highlights the history of fans and how they’re made, while the upper gallery hosts changing exhibitions to showcase different fans from the archives.
Once you’ve finished exploring the exhibits, enjoy afternoon tea in the beautiful Orangery. Travel there by train and you can get 2-for-1 tickets.
4 Florence Nightingale Museum
The Florence Nightingale Museum celebrates the life of the 19th-century healthcare pioneer – arguably the best-known nurse in the world. Crammed full of personal artefacts as well as items relating to nursing and the Crimean War, there’s also the chance every Saturday to meet Miss Nightingale herself and ask her how she improved conditions for both nurses and soldiers.
You’ll find the museum in St Thomas’ Hospital, and don’t forget to claim your 2-for-1 tickets when you travel there by train.
5 The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret
Also part of St Thomas’ Hospital – this time in an 18th-century church that formed part of the hospital’s original Southwark site – the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret is Europe’s oldest surviving operating theatre. It’s housed in an attic at the top of a narrow 52 step spiral staircase, and was originally a space used for drying medicinal herbs – the operating theatre was an 1822 addition that was used for the next 40 years to operate on women.
If you’re interested in Victorian surgery, the museum runs weekend talks on the topic – these are extremely popular, so book in advance. You can also get a 2-for-1 ticket offer on presentation of your rail tickets.
6 The Clink Prison Museum
Once you’ve had a look around the Old Operating Museum, the Clink Prison Museum is only a short walk away. Not for the faint hearted, this museum is housed in Britain’s most notorious prison that dates back to the 12th century.
Get hands-on with history by handling torture devices, hearing tales of the thieves, drunkards, harlots and heretics locked up there, and generally experiencing the sights, smells and sounds of what it was like to be incarcerated in the prison that gave all others their nickname! Save money with a 2-for-1 ticket offer on presentation of your train tickets.
7 The Foundling Museum
The Foundling Hospital was the first UK’s children’s charity, set up by Thomas Coram in the 18th century to look after children who were unable to be cared for by their parents. Because it was supported by artists such as Handel and Hogarth, who encouraged famous artists of the day to donate works to fund the charity, the hospital also became the UK’s first public art gallery – Handel himself donated an organ and used to conduct annual benefit concerts of the Messiah in the hospital’s chapel.
These days the hospital is now the Foundling Museum, telling the story of the 25,000 children looked after by the charity via artefacts and the testimonies of inhabitants, as well as still displaying the many artworks donated to the cause by its famous benefactors. Claim your 2-for-1 tickets when you travel there by train.
8 Garden Museum
Those with green thumbs will love a visit to the Garden Museum, which celebrates and explores the history of gardening in Britain. Housed in a stunning medieval church on the River Thames, opposite the Houses of Parliament, you’ll find permanent and temporary exhibitions as well as a beautiful garden.
Appropriately, the church is the burial place of John Tradescant, who died in 1638 and who was the first great British gardener and plant hunter.
9 The Jewish Museum
The Jewish Museum in north London celebrates the history and heritage of Jews in Britain. Using the themes of migration, family, faith and culture, the museum has a mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions – you can see a medieval mikveh (ceremonial bath), sing Yiddish theatre karaoke, walk down the recreation of an East End Jewish street, and look at poignant displays relating to the Holocaust and the Kindertransport, when thousands of Jewish children emigrated to London to escape the Nazis.
Get 2-for-1 entry when you show your rail ticket.
10 The Musical Museum
Find out how music has been recorded and listened to throughout the years when you visit the Musical Museum in Brentford.
There’s a huge array of instruments to listen and interact with, from pianos, guitars and percussion to more unusual items such as a self-playing violin and an orchestrion, a machine that’s designed to sound like an entire orchestra. Don’t forget to ask for 2-for-1 entry when you show your valid train tickets.
11 Sir John Soane’s Museum
Sir John Soane was an 18th-century architect – his designs include the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Royal Chelsea Hospital – and this museum is his house exactly as he lived in it 180 years ago.
Set in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Soane designed the interior himself to show off his collection of paintings, furniture, sculptures and architectural models, and left it in his will as a museum for architects “amateur and students” to enjoy. This treasure trove of antiquities is free to enter.
12 Museum of Brands
Explore 150 years of packaging and branding at Notting Hill’s Museum of Brands with over 12,000 exhibits from Victorian times to the present day. Walk through the museum’s ‘time tunnel’ and you can see how advances in society have shaped what we consume, putting your favourite brands into their historical context.
There’s also a cafe serving traditional drinks (anyone for Bovril?) plus an award-winning exotic garden to enjoy, and you can claim 2-for-1 tickets with your rail tickets.
13 London Canal Museum
You get to learn about two themes at the London Canal Museum: the history of the canals across the city and the people who lived and worked on them, plus the story of the ice industry in the capital. There was a huge demand for ice in the 19th century for ice cream, food preservation and medical use, so it was brought from places such as Norway on ships and then distributed via London’s canals.
Housed in a former Victorian ice warehouse in Kings Cross, you’ll find interesting exhibitions and artefacts relating to both themes, and the museum also runs tunnel boat trips and towpath walking tours. Get 2-for-1 tickets on presentation of your train tickets.
14 London Museum of Water and Steam
Another chance to learn about London’s industrial heritage, the London Museum of Water and Steam is housed in an old waterworks in Kew and tells the story of London’s water supply and how it developed over the years to supply clean, fresh water to inhabitants.
You’ll also find the world’s largest collection of stationary steam pumping machines, plus a narrow gauge steam locomotive.
15 The Cartoon Museum
With over 6,000 artworks and 8,000 books, it’s a comic lover’s heaven at Fitzrovia’s Cartoon Museum. There are collections of beloved childhood comic strips such as The Beano, Rupert and The Dandy, plus political cartoons from the 18th century to the present day.
Temporary exhibitions highlight different elements of cartoon heritage – current exhibitions include Comic Creators, the Famous and the Forgotten, and a selection of the museum’s collection of cartoon art. You can get 2-for-1 tickets with your valid rail tickets, too.
16 Dennis Severs’ House
Dennis Severs was an American artist who started work on his eponymous house in 1979. The idea behind it is that upon entering you travel back in time and, to quote the man himself, “as if you have passed through the surface of a painting”. A series of 10 interlinked rooms immerses visitors in the world of the Jervis family, Huguenot silk weavers living in the East End of London.
Each room is a tableau to a certain period of history, from 1724 to 1914, and is a design lover’s dream, crammed full of period furnishings and small details. Tours around this ‘still life drama’ are conducted in silence (so they’re not child friendly) and lit only by fire and candlelight, creating a gorgeously evocative and immersive journey through time.
17 Pollock’s Toy Museum
Just a five-minute walk from the Cartoon Museum, Pollock’s Toy Museum is your chance to go on a nostalgic trip back to childhood.
Situated in two historic buildings in London’s Fitzrovia district, this small but perfectly formed museum displays mostly Victorian toys – teddy bears, tin soldiers, puppets, theatres and optical toys – alongside some more unusual offerings, such as an Egyptian clay mouse dating back to 2,000BC.