London 2012: 50 of the best unusual museums in London – part two

With 50 days to go before the Olympic Games begin,‘s London editor John O’ Ceallaigh rounds up 50 of London’s best alternative and quirky museums.

26. British Optical Association Museum, Charing Cross
Also known as the MusEYEum, the British Optical Association Museum in Charing Cross is managed by the College of Optometrists, who promise visitors will find its collection “eye-catching”. That collection includes over 3,000 pairs of spectacles (with a pair recently rejected by Johnny Depp providing a celebrity link), porcelain eyebaths, oil paintings with optical themes, optometry equipment and a contact lens collection. It’s a curious spot just a few minutes from Trafalgar Square and the main areas are free to visit; a small fee is payable when participating in a pre-arranged tour of the college’s meeting rooms.

27. Ragged School Museum, Mile End
Ragged schools were schools that sought to educate impoverished children in 1800s Britain; Mile End’s Ragged School Museum considers what conditions were like for ragged schools’ pupils. On display are numerous educational items, such as desks, ink bottles and slate boards, as well as objects relating to contemporary leisure and work life, but the museum’s crowning glory is its Victorian classroom. Laid out in the same way as it would have been in an original ragged school, the space is best experienced during the monthly open house sessions, when actors in period costume teach a lesson to visitors of all ages.

London 2012: 50 of the best unusual museums in London - part two

28. Florence Nightinggale Museum, Lambeth
The legacy of the Lady with the Lamp is displayed in detail at Lambeth’s Florence Nightingale Museum (above). Tracing every stage of her life, from her privileged youth to her exertions during the Crimean War, the museum brings her story into focus with engaging displays and some of her possessions, including a series of letters she wrote.

29. Firepower, the Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich
The Royal Artillery Museum has been at its current location since 2001, but it has existed since 1820 and is considered the world’s oldest military museum. In its current incarnation the museum tells the story of artillery and considers the human stories that are often forgotten in tales of warfare. The ‘Field of Fire’ audio-visual show is an installation that does its best to give non-military personnel some insight into how it must feel in a war zone as bullets shoot overhead. The museum also showcases munitions made at the Royal Arsenal and its general display includes uniforms, diaries and medals in addition to weaponry.

30. John Keats House, Hampstead
Keats’s story is imbued with sadness and romance and those qualities are brought to life at Keats House in Hampstead (below). The poet lived here shortly before he died of tuberculosis, aged just 25, and it was here he wrote some of his most memorable works and fell in love with his neighbour Fanny Brawne. The museum includes various Keats books, paintings and keepsakes but its most famous object is the engagement ring he gave to Brawne. The design of the pretty, free-to-enter house garden is inspired by Keats’s poems and is a popular spot with picnicking couples on dates.

London 2012: 50 of the best unusual museums in London - part two

31. The Olympic Museum, Royal Opera House Covent Garden
Although the other attractions listed here are open permanently, the Olympic Museum is only in London fleetingly. For much of the Games period, objects from the Olympic Museum in Lausanne are being displayed in a temporary museum within the Royal Opera House, in what is being touted by London 2012 Festival director Ruth Mackenzie as “a once-in-a-lifetime display of extraordinary artefacts in the heart of London.” It’s a convincing claim as the exhibition will include a display of all the Olympic medals dating from the first modern Games in Athens in 1896 and all of the Olympic torches since the Berlin Games in 1936 – that was the first year they were used. The museum will be open from July 28 to August 12 from 10am to 7pm and admission will be free.

32. Sir John Soane’s Museum, Holborn
The architect Sir John Soane left his mark all over London – he designed the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, among other buildings – but it’s a visit to his own home that impresses architecture fans the most. Soane arranged for the house to become a museum for architecture ‘amateurs and students’ after his death (in 1837) and the Lincoln’s Inn Fields property has stood largely unaltered since that time. Wandering the interior, you’ll discover countless antiquities and curiosities including ancient artefacts from Egypt and the Orient, old timepieces and period furniture. The museum holds candelit evening opens on the first Tuesday of each month, which are beautifully atmospheric but extremely popular and often oversubscribed.

33. Anaesthesia Heritage Centre Museum, Portland Place
Managed by the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, and housed in its headquarters, the Anaesthesia Museum is a niche proposition – as you’ve deduced its collection relates solely to anaesthesia. Still, its collection of anaesthesia-related objects chart an impressive evolution in medical development and should be of interest to anyone in the medical field.

34. Museum of Freemasonry, Covent Garden
Anyone intrigued or confounded by freemasonry is welcome to visit the library and museum within the Freemasons’ Hall for edification. Giving some insight into the freemason existence, the museum’s collection includes numerous prints and photographs, artefacts from famous freemasons such as Winston Churchill and displays detailing freemason hierarchy and everyday practices. It’s worth timing your tour to coincide with one of the many free tours of the Freemasons’ Hall Grand Temple and ceremonial areas.

35. Fashion and Textile Museum, Bermondsey
Founded by Zandra Rhodes and operated by Newham College, the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey concerns itself with all things relating to fashion, textile and jewellery. The main draw here is the museum’s programme of temporary exhibitions rather than an extensive permanent display, and the curators here regularly develop shows that consider the influence of past fashion innovators or promote emerging design talents. The gift shop is worth a browse too, stocking a carefully selected range of products from talented designers just now making a name for themselves.

36. Handel House Museum, Mayfair
The composer George Frideric Handel was born in Germany but spent the last 36 years of his life living at 25 Brook Street in London. The museum that now resides in his former home brims with artefacts and portraits relating to Handel and his contemporaries but its most charming facet is its infusion of music. Concerts are regularly performed within the museum and specially selected musicians are also allowed to rehearse a Baroque-period repertoire in the museum’s rehearsal room at other times. Time your visit right and you’ll be able to hear Handel’s classic works performed by a modern master.

37. HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge
Part of the Imperial War Museums body of cultural institutions, the HMS Belfast is a one-time warship that now serves as a permanent tourist attraction. Spread over nine decks, the museum space catalogues both the immense challenges of life on the sea and the mundane daily realities faced by a confined crew that could top over 900 people.

38. Cuming Museum, Southwark
A museum for over 100 years, the Cuming Museum in Southwark houses the eclectic collection of curios and antiquities accumulated by father and son Richard and Henry Cuming between 1788 and 1902. Upon its 1906 opening the space was described as “the British Museum in miniature” and its varied range of costumes, textiles, medals, weapons and trinkets come from at least 50 different countries. The museum also contains display areas dedicated to the history of the local area.

39. Horniman Museum, Lewisham
The Horniman Museum would be one of London’s ‘must-visit’ museums if it was located in the city centre, but its suburban location in south London means the site isn’t entrenched on the tourist circuit. Which is a good thing as you don’t have to battle intense crowds to survey the museum’s eclectic and eccentric collection. Its core objects were curios collected by Frederick John Horniman in Victorian times and the continually evolving and expanding displays include all manner of objects relating to anthropology, music and natural history. Most famous is the museum’s massive stuffed walrus but a bizarre merman sculpture fashioned from paper-maché and fish remains and assorted tribal masks are also worth looking out for. The free museum is also flanked by 16-acre gardens which are also open to the public.

40. MCC Museum, Lord’s Cricket Ground
Housed within the Lord’s Cricket Ground by Regent’s Park, the MCC Museum is rammed on match days but is open throughout the year and a worthy stop-off point for anyone with an interest in cricket. As well as the expected collection of photography, clothing and regalia, the museum includes its share of oddities – not least a stuffed sparrow that was ‘bowled out’ during a 1936 match.

Ashes urn - London in your lunch break: The MCC Museum at Lord’s Cricket Ground

41. Westminster Abbey Museum, Westminster
An ancient and spectacular place of worship still in everyday use, it’s only right that Westminster Abbey should have a museum dedicated to it. Housed within an 11th-century vaulted undercroft of the abbey, the museum reinforces the sense of history that permeates this space with centuries-old exhibits. Weaponry carried at the 1422 funeral of Henry V is displayed alongside 12th-century sculptures and effigies of assorted past royals.

42. The Clockmakers’ Museum, Moorgate
The Clockmakers’ Museum in the City of London can trace its origins to the 1813 foundation of the Clockmakers’ Company Library. A collection of clocks grew in tandem with the library and now numbers some 600 English and European watches, 30 clocks and 15 marine timekeepers. Horologists and jewellers will find the assortment of timepieces (mostly dating from 1600-1850) dazzling and fascinating but the free museum welcomes anyone with an appreciation for design and tradition. Prepare to leave coveting a timepiece of your own and lamenting how mobile phones have usurped the sturdy wristwatch.

43. Hunterian Museum, Holborn
Within the Royal College of Surgeons, the Hunterian Museum in Holborn draws from the collection of 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter and forms one of the most thorough anatomical and pathological displays in the country. An excellent learning resource for medical students, the slick exhibition space should prove just as appealing to casual visitors. On show are various medical oddities, sometimes macabre and often fascinating. One of the most famous artefacts is the skeleton of the 7’ 7” giant Charles Byrne, while other bizarre additions include Winston Churchill’s dentures and the tooth of an extinct giant sloth. The museum is free and it’s worth timing your visit to coincide with the curator-led guided tours that take place most Wednesdays at 1pm. They’re also free but places are limited so it’s worth calling to book your space in advance.

44. Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square
The Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 to care for abandoned children, the Foundling Museum tells its story. The artist William Hogarth and composer Handel were major benefactors of the hospital and art and music are, perhaps unexpectedly, a strongpoint of the museum; paintings by Francis Hayman, Joseph Highmore and various others stand alongside Hogarth’s works, the Gerald Coke Handel Collection of manuscripts, printed books and music and ephemera is one of the most comprehensive collections of Handel-related items publicly accessible.

45. National Army Museum, Chelsea
The National Army Museum documents and celebrates Britain’s armed forces past and present with a series of considered permanent galleries and permanent exhibitions. The World Wars remain an area of focus, but other displays examine life in the British Army from 1784 to directly before the First World War. The Conflicts of Interest section considers wars from 1969 to the present day, including the conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands, but often it’s the smaller personal effects on display that bring the everyday realities of war faced by British army personnel into sharpest focus.

46. Grant Museum of Zoology, Euston
The Grant Museum of Zoology is a labyrinth of animal oddities, jammed with skeletons, species preserved in vials and extinct specimens. Housed within UCL, the museum is well known to students but it also does a commendable job of attracting external visitors. Admission is free, iPads positioned by displays invite spectators to log their comments and contribute to discussions, and innovative temporary exhibitions – such as one showcasing animal-made artworks – make complex scientific and academic debate accessible and engaging.

47. The Guards Museum, Victoria
A short stroll from Buckingham Palace, the Guards Museum is dedicated to the five regiments of Foot Guards (the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and Welsh Guards) who, along with the Household Cavelry, make up the Queen’s Household Division and guard the Sovereign and the Royal Palaces. Many of their members were shown in fine fettle during the spectacular Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the museum goes some way in explaining their history and clarifying the reasons behind the pomp and ceremony they formed such an integral part of.

48. 2 Willow Road, Hampstead
The home at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead was designed by Ernö Goldfinger in 1939 as his family home. Finished with features that were pioneering in their time, and which still look current today, the property is an exceptional example of Modernist design and is now a National Trust site that can be enjoyed by the public. Given its original purpose the space is unsurprisingly small but there’s plenty to see, with artworks by Max Ernst, Henry Moor and Bridget Riley complementing the beguiling original interior. Be sure to time your visit so you can join one of the guided tours of the property.

49. Museum of the Order of St John, Clerkenwell
Most people are familiar with St John Ambulance, but fewer know that its origins stretch back to 11th-century Jerusalem. The Museum of the Order of St John examines the order’s original role as a hospital to care for sick pilgrims in Jerusalem and includes exhibits that steer its story to the modern day. Also of interest to visitors is the museum’s setting – spread over two sites, it occupies the 1504 St John’s Gate, which was the entrance to the former Priory of the Knights of St John, and the Priory Church of St John, which houses an impressive 12th-century crypt.

50. Churchill War Rooms and Churchill Museum, Westminster
The Churchill War Rooms is located on the site of the maintained and protected Cabinet War Rooms, where those who oversaw Britain’s wartime government sheltered during the Blitz. It’s a fascinating subterranean space that allows modern-day visitors to see this crucial military epicentre as it was at the end of Britain’s war effort in 1945. An intriguing addition to the space, the Churchill Museum is the only major museum anywhere dedicated entirely to Sir Winston Churchill. Examining his life in detail it considers the massive contribution he made to the war effort, and to life in the nation generally, with his skills as an orator and leader brought to rousing life through recordings of his ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech and other key public addresses.

Paul Champion

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