Few cities in the world do museums in quite the way London does. Its most famous examples – The British Museum, the Natural History Museum and so on – are among the city’s major tourist attractions. But it is possible to enjoy a different flavour of London by visiting its legion minor museums, which seem to exist solely as a means of expressing how peculiar Britons and their interests can be.
Many of these museums require, shall we say, a very keen interest in the subject matter; while others are, as Samuel Johnson said of the Giant’s Causeway, ‘worth seeing … but not worth going to see’.
However, the following five are among the few that are worth a visit.
Located in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, the Foundling Museum (foundlingmuseum.org.uk) is built on the site of the Foundling Hospital – the world’s first children’s charity and its first public art gallery.
The Hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. It had taken him 17 years to raise the funds.
The artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel helped Coram by making the Hospital one of London’s most fashionable venues. Handel held annual benefit concerts there while Hogarth encouraged the leading artists of the day to donate work. These paintings are still on display in the Museum’s charming 18th-century interiors reconstructed from the original building.
Poverty, widowhood, desertion by the child’s father and the shame of illegitimacy were common reasons why women faced the Sophie’s choice of keeping their babies and subjecting them to a life of poverty, or leaving them with the Hospital, which offered the child a better life. On opening, the Hospital was overwhelmed by demand and, to cope with the numbers, was forced to use a simple lottery system.
On admission, names were changed to protect mother and child, but it was possible for a mother to reclaim her child using a token that matched the one she’d already provided. Some of these are on heart-breaking display in the Museum’s small but fascinating permanent exhibition. They include personalised fabric, coins, playing cards, jewellery and medals.
By the time the Foundling Hospital closed in 1954, about 25,000 babies and children had passed through its doors.
A short walk from the Foundling Hospital, is the Dickens Museum (dickensmuseum.com), located in a Georgian townhouse at 48 Doughty Street, Bloomsbury. Then in his mid-twenties, Dickens moved there with his wife Catherine, Charles Jr (the first of their ten children) and Catherine’s sister Mary Hogarth who died in the house a few weeks later. Her death affected Dickens deeply and had a morbid influence on his subsequent writing.
Dickens rented the house from 1837 to 1839, just as his fame was peaking. It was at 48 Doughty Street that he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
The museum is exquisitely curated and very evocative. Many of the objects were owned by Dickens himself (such as his desk and chair, and shaving gear).
Whether you’re interested in Dickens or not you would have to be among the living dead not to find the museum captivating, and it is within striking distance of the British Museum and the rest of what has been dubbed Museum Mile (museum-mile.org.uk).
Much smaller than the Army Museum in Chelsea and certainly the Imperial War Museum in Southwark, the Guards Museum (theguardsmuseum.com) is ideal for someone whose interest in military matters is low to moderate and who happens to be in the area – that is, Birdcage Walk near Buckingham Palace. There is no faulting its location.
The museum is devoted solely to the British Army’s five Guards regiments – the Coldstream, Grenadier, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards – who form most of the Queen’s Household Division. When you watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, it is these guys who are doing the changing.
This compact museum is well laid out and consistently interesting, covering as it does all 360 years of the Guards’ existence. As such it provides a pocket history of the British Army. Objects that captured my attention included a packet of now crumbling chocolate distributed by Queen Victoria to all British soldiers during the Boer War, and an assault rifle smashed to pieces by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
Old Operating Theatre Museum
There are dozens of medicine-related museums in London (see www.medicalmuseums.org) but probably the best example is the Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret, which more than any other museum I’ve been to, benefits from its unique setting.
The museum is housed at the top of a spiral stone staircase in the garret of a deconsecrated church near London Bridge. The church was built in 1703, its garret specifically intended to store herbs for the apothecary of St Thomas’s Hospital.
In 1822, an operating theatre was installed in one half of the garret. The theatre is the oldest surviving in Europe, and was built in the attic because it adjoined the hospital’s women’s ward, and because it was possible to create a large overhead skylight to aid the surgeons in their work.
For the 40 years it was in use, none of the operations performed there involved anaesthetic beyond alcohol or maybe opium, which is why it was separated from the ward by a soundproof wall. Tragically, antiseptic was not used either – Sir Joseph Lister introduced such procedures to the medical world in 1865, three years after the operating theatre closed. The mortality rate was horrendous.
The operating table, which remains in situ, is made of wood. The majority of cases were amputations, and in the absence of anaesthetics surgeons focused on speed. A skilled surgeon could remove a limb in less than a minute.
The other half of the garret contains a fascinating if macabre display including surgical instruments such as amputation saws, as well as leech jars and scarification equipment. The place smells pleasantly of carbolic, which is on display but was never used at the time. The illustrations of people being held down while their limbs are sawn off adds to the atmosphere and the immense gratitude you feel for having been born 150 years after the theatre was closed.
Staff talks bring the innocuous wood-panelled space of the operating theatre to gruesome life so it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with one – check the website (thegarret.org.uk) for details.
In a similar vein, so to speak, is the Anaesthesia Museum, which is housed in the basement of the Association of Anaesthetists (www.aagbi.org) in Marylebone. Though the size of a modest kitchen, it has more than 4000 objects, some of them dating from 1774, and many of them available for inspection in drawers with labels such as ‘Endotracheal tubes’, ‘Laryngeal masks’, ‘mouthgags’, and ‘tongue forceps’.
It is a well-curated museum permeated with what might be the faint smell of anaesthetic. That said, it is more the story of anaesthesia than the museum itself that captured my imagination. For instance, the first anaesthetics were ether (1846), chloroform (1847) and nitrous oxide (1868). None of them were ideal. Ether is highly flammable, chloroform’s possible side effects include death, and nitrous oxide wears off too quickly.
Other obscure London museums …
The following museums might also tempt you, though bear in mind their opening hours can be as eccentric as their contents – check their websites for details.
- The Optical Museum near Trafalgar Square has a collection of 18,000 spectacles and vision aids including 18th- and 19th-century spy glasses and telescopes, eye baths, and models of diseased eyes.
- The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill offers 12,000 items, mostly comprising food packets from the last century or so.
- The Twinings Museum, opposite the Old Bailey on the Strand, is more a small shop than a museum, though it was on these premises in 1706 that the tea company was founded.
- The Dental Museum in Marylebone is about the size of a dental surgery, and provides a disturbing insight into life before dentists were properly trained and equipped.
- Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich is necessarily large given the sometimes enormous exhibits on display. An interest in artillery is a prerequisite.
- If you enjoyed the Dickens Museum, you might also want to visit Dr Johnson’s House near Fleet Street, or Benjamin Franklin’s House near Charing Cross, or Keats’s House in Hampstead.
- The Garden Museum in Lambeth has a small collection of old gardening tools, including eccentricities such as a glass cucumber-straightener and a walking stick with inbuilt pruning saw for gentlemen gardeners.
- The Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell offers everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Knights of St John of Jerusalem.
- The Musical Museum in Brentford is devoted purely to self-playing instruments. An excellent place to learn the difference between the orchestrion and the orchestrelle.
- The Chartered Insurance Institute Museum in the City of London is concerned mainly with fire insurance and firefighting.
- The Wimbledon Windmill Museum details the history of the Wimbledon Windmill (in which it is located) and windmills generally. Ideal for windmill enthusiasts.
- The London Sewing Machine Museum in Balham covers the history of both domestic and industrial sewing machines.
- Greenwich’s Fan Museum claims to be the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to handheld fans, which comes as absolutely no surprise. If you find yourself there trying to admire its 3500 antique fans, it is possible that you’ve become bored with London, and therefore with life.