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Go off the beaten track to explore London’s quirkiest museums…
By Steph Dye (follow Steph on Twitter: @HelloIAmSteph)
There are so many things that can put Londoners like ourselves off going to museums. The crowds, the unruly children, the heat, the noise – all things that can make the thought of heading out for a bit of culture less inviting than wearing sandals in the snow. But what happens if we fancy a bit of culture? Well if you have already worked your way through all the free art that’s on in the city, how about checking out some of the smaller museums? Perfect for a lunchtime wander or a Sunday afternoon, they all have something unique to offer and are also completely free! Fancy that!
#1 | Grant Museum of Zoology | Euston
What is it?: Founded as a teaching aid and study in 1828, the Grant Museum of Zoology is the last remaining university, zoological museum left in London. It features over 68,000 specimens, from skeletons to stuffed animals to preserved bodies – even some that are now instinct, such as the Tasmanian tiger and the dodo.
Where is it?: Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, WC1E 6DE.
When is it?: Monday-Saturday, 1pm-5pm. However, due it’s links with the University, the museum is sometimes closed during school holidays. Check the website for details.
See the: Quagga skeleton, as there are only seven known skeletons left on the planet. The zebra-like animal became extinct in 1883, making this the rarest skeleton in the world.
#2 | William Morris Gallery | Walthamstow
What is it?: This Grade II listed building was William Morris’ home between 1848 and 1856 and is the only museum dedicated to the man and his work within the arts and crafts movement. The collections help to illustrate the life of William Morris and his business, also giving details about the friends and colleagues he collaborated with.
Where is it?: Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, E17 4PP.
When is it?: Wednesday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.
See the: The stained glass windows, which were one of Morris & co’s specialities, though it is not what they are specifically known for. The ‘Praising Angel‘ (1878) was originally made as a one-off for Salisbury cathedral, but became so popular that it was recreated several times and is great example of using light to create an other-wordly glow.
#3 | Fitzroy House | Tottenham Court Road
What is it?: Designed and built in the 1790’s, this house is one of the few of it’s kind left in London. What’s more than that, it’s also a site of huge literary importance, having been lived in by both George Bernard Shaw and L. Ron Hubbard, science fiction writer and founder of the Scientology religion. The house, which has been preserved to how it would have look in the 195o’s, when Hubbard lived there, is a tribute to his life and work.
Where is it?: 37 Fitzroy St, W1T 6DX.
When is it?: Monday-Sunday, 11am-5pm. Admission is free but by appointment only, so don’t forget to book before you visit.
See the: Adler typewriters, on which Hubbard wrote many of his now famous Scientology works.
#4 | Hunterian Museum | Holborn
What is it?: Row upon row of glass jars, with everything from tiny organisms, to strange two-headed beasts, to examples of gross diseases, this museum can be very creepy at times, especially when it’s quiet. However, it’s so much more than the freakshow that it is sometimes made out to be, offering a unique insight into the history of surgery and advances in modern medicine. The next few months are your last chance to see the museum before it closes in 2017 for refurbishment, so get going!
Where is it?: Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE.
When is it?: Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm. Don’t forget to pick up a visitors pass when you get to reception!
See the: 7ft, 7in tall skeleton of the ‘Irish Giant’, real name Charles Byrne, who died at the age of 22 in Charing Cross and suffered from gigantism, though it was a high intake of alcohol that killed him. Byrne was reportedly so scared of being dissected for research, that he requested burial at sea. Unluckily for him, those in charge of his body were bribed and the remains eventually ended up at the Hunterian Museum.
#5 | V&A Museum of Childhood | Bethnal Green
What is it?: A fun blast from the past, this museum will take you back to your childhood with it’s collection of children’s toys, clothes and games. Be warned though, don’t fall into the trap that many others have and assume it on the same site as the original V&A, otherwise you will have a very long trip across London! The Museum of Childhood is one of the most popular on our list, receiving almost 500,000 visitors a year. This may seem like a lot but when you compare it to the British Museum’s 7,000,000… well, it’s actually not that bad.
Where is it?: Cambridge Heath Rd, E2 9PA.
When is it?: Monday-Sunday, 10am-5:45pm.
See the: Clothing exhibition, which is a collection of over 6000 garments and accessories worn by children that charts the changing attitudes to the dress of young people, as well as the changing fashion trends.
#6 | Wellcome Collection | Euston
What is it?: Exploring the connections between life, death, the past and the future led this museum’s founder, Sir Henry Wellcome to collect over a million objects and artifacts related to medicine. At the Wellcome Collection, you can check some of them out for yourself in the fascinating exhibits and library.
Where is it?: 183 Euston Road, NW1 2BE.
When is it?: Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-6pm, apart from Thursday when it closes at 10pm; Sunday, 11am-6pm.
See the: Slice of a human body, that has had all of it’s internal cavities and veins filled with plastic, to create a transparent visual of the internal workings of the human body.
#7 | The Geffrye Museum | Hoxton
What is it?: Set in a restored, 18th century almshouse, the Geffrye Museum is a whistle-stop tour of the home and domestic design from the 1600’s to the present day. An insight into day-to-day life through the centuries, each era is recreated, using reconstructions and artifacts to mock up the various time periods.
Where is it?: 136 Kingsland Road, E2 8EA.
When is it?: Tuesday-Sunday (and Bank Holiday Mondays), 10am-5pm.
See the: The 1966 Videosphere ‘space helmet’ TV. An iconic piece of design from when the world was obsessed with outer-space and Japanese technology was just starting to flourish, this television would have been a must-have item of the era.
#8 | Horniman Museum | Forest Hill
What is it?: Probably the most popular museum in south London, the Horniman Museum has a little bit of everything. There are stunning views overlooking the city from it’s grounds, which are home to to hundreds of plants and the conservatory, which is over 100 years old. Moving inside, there are natural history, musical instrument and social culture galleries, with items taken from all over the world. In the basement, there is even an aquarium to keep you busy (though you have to pay a small entrance fee to visit it). What more could you ask for?
Where is it?: 100 London Road, Forest Hill, SE23 3PQ.
When is it?: Monday-Sunday, 10:30am-5:30pm.
See the: Walrus in the main natural history collection, which was first seen in South Kensington in 1886. It was one of the most popular exhibits due to it’s over-stuffed form which lacks the wrinkles and skin folds that walruses naturally have. This is likely to be due to the low amount of people to have seen a live walrus, meaning they misunderstood the shape!
#9 | National Army Museum | Chelsea
What is it?: Tracing the history of the British army from the 16th century, this museum is less about the battles and wars themselves and more about the lives of the men and women who made up the army. Reopening with brand new exhibitions at the end of this year, it will be an informative, state of the art record of the history behind the British Army.
Where is it?: Royal Hospital Road, SW3 4HT.
When is it?: The new museum is set to open November 2016.
#10 | The Library and Museum of Freemasonry | Covent Garden
What is it?: Home to the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England, this ornate building was built in the late 1920’s. The hall also has library and museum, which charts the three hundred year history of the social institution and free for the public to access.
Where is it?: Freemasons Hall, 60 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AZ.
When is it?: Monday-Saturday, 10am-5pm.
See the: Apron and pouch for a Master Mason that belonged to Winston Churchill! The late Prime Minister was not an active member of the Freemasons, however he was initiated into the brotherhood in 1902, forty years before he became the country’s leader.
#11 | Sir John Soane’s Museum | Holborn
What is it?: Is the Hunterian to creepy for your tastes? Pop across the square to the eclectic Sir John Soane’s Museum. On request of the owner, who also lent his name to the venue, the house has remained untouched for over 180 years. The house is packed to the rafters with a unique collection of artwork, sculptures and artifacts were collected on the architect’s travels.
Where is it?: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3BP.
When is it?: Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm.
See the: The alabaster sarcophagi of Pharaoh Sety I. Apart from being massively old, the casket is also beautifully delicate and illustrated. It’s definitely a sight to behold.
#12 | Museum of London Docklands | Canary Wharf
What is it?: Sister museum to the more well-known Museum of London, the Museum of London Docklands tells the history of the River Thames, from 1600 to the present day. Covering everything from the international trade that helped make London the city it is today, to it’s controversial connection to slavery, to the First and Second World Wars, the museum provides a unique narrative of the city which is informative for adults and children alike. The museum also offers free gallery tours, just as at reception for details.
Where is it?: No.1 Warehouse, West India Quay, E14 4AL.
When is it?: Monday-Sunday, 10am-6pm.
See the: Pair of sandals that were confiscated from an Asian seaman in the late 1800s. They had a secret compartment in the bottom used to smuggle opium into the city.
#13 | Wallace Collection | Marylebone
What is it?: A veritable treasure trove of artwork and antiques, collected in the 18th and 19th century. Spread over 25 galleries, this historic London townhouse is home to some of the best examples of painting, sculpture, furniture and porcelain from that era, as well as a world-class armoury. The house also hosts several free talks during the day, check out the website for details.
Where is it?: Hertford House, Manchester Square, W1U 3BN.
When is it?: Monday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.
See the: Rubens’ Rainbow Landscape, painted from the window of his newly purchased retirement home in 1636. I was bought to become part of the collection in 1856 by the owner, who outbid even the National Gallery in conquest for it.
#14 | National Maritime Museum | Greenwich
What is it?: The largest maritime museum in the world. Which, considering that Greenwich was the heart of Britain-by-sea for so long, is not that surprising. The building itself is enough of a marvel, however contained within it’s walls are painting, memorabilia, maps, antiques along with thousands of other objects that all tell the history of Britain’s relationship with the sea.
Where is it?: Park Row, Greenwich, SE10 9NF.
When is it?: Monday-Sunday, 10am-5pm.
See the: Admiral Nelson’s uniform from the battle of Trafalgar, including the hole made by the bullet that killed him.
#15 | Royal Airforce Museum | Hendon
What is it?: Similar to the National Army Museum, the Royal Airforce Museum aims to tell the story of it’s history through the people that served within it’s ranks. There are over 100 aircraft to see on site, as well as collections of objects, soundbites and videos to paint a vivid picture of the military’s aviation history in Britain.
Where is it?: Grahame Park Way, NW9 5LL.
When is it?: Monday-Sunday, 10am-6pm (March to October); 10am-5pm (November-February).
See the: F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet, as the Royal Airforce Museum is the only place in the world that you can check one out in the flesh!
Don’t let the cost of dinner spoil a cheap day out! Here are some great, low cost dinner spots.