South Kensington is on the destination checklist of almost every tourist who wants to visit a museum in London. Even many of those of us who live in the city have a fondness for the area and its cluster of museums. The Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and, my personal favourite, the Victoria & Albert Museum line Cromwell and Exhibition Roads in Knightsbridge, providing education and cultural enlightenment mere yards from that equally-famed shrine to extortionate spending, Harrods. And whilst these museums may be some of the biggest and most popular, London has a whole host of smaller, lesser-known museums, which offer an equally fascinating way to pass an afternoon.
These smaller museums are spread out across the whole city, tucked down cobbled side-streets and up above shop fronts. Many of them are housed in examples of the very finest London architecture, in old townhouses or one-time public offices, trimmed with columns and impedimenta. A distinct bonus is that – thanks to their relatively low profile – these museums rarely have the staggering queues and loose, screaming children hurtling round every corner that can drive one mad at the Natural History Museum for example. Thus, they are the perfect place to spend a peaceful few hours, often delightfully tourist-free. There are museums for those who are still children at heart (or who are still actually children… they have a broad appeal!), like the tiny Pollock’s Toy Museum near Goodge Street. There are museums showcasing great (and sometimes just plain weird) life-long collections, such as explorer Flinders Petrie’s Egyptological collection or the more well-known, Soane Museum – the art and antiquities collection of 18th century architect, Sir John Soane, displayed in his own former home. Weapons and warfare, exemplar design objets, costumes and jewellery, machines and models are all on show.
A wonderful former favourite museum of mine was located just off the main market area of Covent Garden, a memorial to the West End and theatre in the city. Filled with stunning costumes and clever technical stage sets and yellowing old scripts, the Theatre Museum was free to enter and endlessly diverting. Sadly though, its free entry and low profile led the museum to close a few years ago – a sad loss from the city’s cultural collection. So these smaller museums need you to visit them! Go and support them, explore every corner, learn a little and then tell someone else about them.
Here are a few favourites I’ve discovered over the years, which make a refreshing change from the usual china pots in glass cases and endless fossil displays…
Part museum, part interactive wander through history, this townhouse near Liverpool Street station was a project that consumed the final 20 or so years of a man named Denis Severs. Enter off the street today and you step back in time. But to exactly when you are not quite sure. Each room in this ancient house is decorated in the style of a different period, although it is done so convincingly you rather feel as if someone is still living there, through each era as you wander around. Actually someone is still living there – a museum cat who is equally at home in the sumptuous Georgian dining room and the draughty Dickensian attic.
Location: 18 Folgate Street, Spittalfields, London, E1 6BX
Opening: Sunday: 12:00-16:00; some Mondays 12:00-14:00. Check the website for details of when to visit; the museum is also open some evenings, when it offers magical candle-lit tours.
Cost: £7.00 – £10.00 (adult)
An entire museum in a single room doesn’t sound as if it would entertain you for very long, but this extensive collection of zoological specimens is surprisingly TARDIS-like. Housed in an old medical library, over 67,000 specimens line glass cases and walls, some stuffed and mounted, others suspended in jars of formaldehyde; from glistening sea-mice and scaly reptiles of various sizes, to creepy cross-sections of domestic pets and jars of tiny turtles. Explore what your favourite furry friend looks like on the inside, and face off with a huge skeletal beast or two, whilst learning about the science and purpose of zoological collection.
Location: Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, London, WC1E 6DE
Opening: Monday-Saturday: 13:00-17:00 (not open on public holidays)
Cost: Free entry
The very rarest of unsung museums hides behind the door of 19, Princelet Street, in Spitalfields, only opening its doors a handful of times a year. Due to the fragile nature of its very structure, the museum is unable to cope with the hoards of visitors which stream through the doors of many of the larger museums, and its occasional openings attract staggeringly patient queues right around the block. The Museum of Immigration tells the tale of the many hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have made London their home over the years, through a serious of exhibitions as much as through their surprising setting. Behind the unassuming facade is a preserved, if crumbling, Huguenot townhouse, complete with an entire synagogue tacked onto the back.
Location: 19 Princelet Street, London, E1 6QH
Opening: Ad hoc (see the museum's website for details of openings)
Cost: Entry is free, but the museum is always grateful for donations to save this amazing place.
Overlooking the children-only Coram’s Fields in Holborn is an apt location for the Foundling Museum, dedicated to the former Foundling Orphanage which stood nearby, and the many hundreds of abandoned and homeless children who passed through its doors. A permanent exhibition details the grimness of life in Victorian London, the heartbreaking accounts of the families and strangers who handed in tiny unwanted children to this orphanage and what life was really like for those who finally found some sort of home here.
Location: 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ
Opening: Tuesday-Saturday: 10:00-17:00; Sunday: 11:00-17:00 (Closed Mondays)
Cost: £7.50 (adult), £5.00 (concession), children up to 16 years old free.
This post was written for and first published on TownFish.