London is a museum lover’s dream, but there are always far too many high-profile exhibitions and permanent collections to choose from and, try as I might, I never get to see them all. Hidden London museums, in comparison, are usually cheaper and quieter to visit, yet they’re easily overlooked.
The thing is, those smaller and more obscure attractions don’t get an equal billing, and many tourists miss out on these underrated attractions. I’ve selected six of my favourite hidden London museums to redress the balance.
The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret
- What: A genuine operating theatre at the top of a church near the Thames, dating from 1822 (before anaesthetics and antiseptic!), accessed by a narrow spiral staircase. The attic of the church was also used as a herb garret by St. Thomas’ Apothecary from 1703.
- Artefacts: Medicine bottles, skeletons, diagrams, surgical kits, and equipment such as birthing chairs. There’s plenty of detail on medicinal herbs. For instance, did you know moss was used as a field dressing from Roman and Celtic times until WWI? These age-old treatments will appeal to fans of the Outlander books, by Diana Gabaldon, where a time-travelling WWII nurse has to use old remedies in 1700s Scotland, France and America.
- Where: 9a St. Thomas Street, Southwark (nearest tube is London Bridge).
- Cost: £6.50 adults, £5.00 concessions, £3.50 under 16s; family tickets available. National Trust members can claim a discount.
- Open: 10:30-17:00 daily.
- Combine With: The Shard, Shakespeare’s Globe or Borough Market.
The Cinema Museum
- What: Based in a former workhouse where Charlie Chaplin was kept as a child, this site holds a unique collection of film reels, advertising and mementoes. The museum is run by volunteers.
- Artefacts: Film posters, old cinema signage, photos, and tons of Charlie Chaplin memorabilia. Oh, and 17 million feet of film. This definitely ticks the ‘hidden London museums’ box, but how do you hide all that material?!
- Where: 2 Dugard Way, Lambeth (nearest tube is Elephant & Castle, Lambeth North or Kennington).
- Cost: £10 adults, £7 children or concessions; free entry if you’re already going to an evening event.
- Open: Unless you’re attending an event, it’s by guided tour only. Book ahead on 020 7840 2200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Combine With: The Imperial War Museum, Tate Britain or the London Eye.
The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
- What: Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was a leading Egyptologist, and this museum holds some of his key finds from Egypt and Sudan.
- Artefacts: Egyptian burial goods, pots and jewellery. The world’s oldest piece of clothing is here too, and the oldest wills on papyrus paper. Beyond the Petrie, look out for the preserved body of Jeremy Bentham, kept in a glass box in UCL.
- Where: Inside the UCL campus, Malet Place (nearest tube is Euston Square or Goodge Street).
- Cost: Free.
- Open: 13:00-17:00 Tuesday-Saturday, Monday by appointment only for visiting researchers. Closed 22nd December 2016 – 3rd January 2017 for Christmas break.
- Combine With: The Wellcome Collection, the British Museum or Regent’s Park.
The Hunterian Museum
- What: Equipment and relics from some of medicine’s greatest British surgeons, with 100% authentic pickled body parts, tumours and diseased organs – animal and human – plus surgical instruments and paintings of famous surgeons. Many parts of the collection belonged to John Hunter FRS (1728-1793).
- Artefacts: My favourite was a false nose, designed to be worn by a syphilis victim. Look out for Winston Churchill’s dentures, and the remains of Charles Byrne, a.k.a. ‘The Irish Giant’.
- Where: The Royal College of Surgeons, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields (nearest tube is Holborn or Chancery Lane).
- Cost: Free entry.
- Open: 10:00-17:00 Tuesday-Saturday.
- Combine With: Sir John Soane’s Museum, Covent Garden or the Inns of Court.
The Twinings Tea Museum
- What: A tiny museum inside the almost 300-year-old flagship branch of Twinings Tea Shop. Find it at the back of the shop, past the main tea and coffee selection.
- Artefacts: Teapots, caddies, books, posters and tea ephemera, including Twinings’ staff cricket club and football club programmes. This wasn’t always the only tea museum in town – the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum existed from 1992-2008, but its exhibits are now held by a private collector, so Twinings is unrivalled.
- Where: 216 The Strand (nearest tube is Temple, Holborn or Covent Garden).
- Cost: Free.
- Open: 09:30-19:00 Monday-Friday, 10:00-17:00 Saturday, 11:00-18:00 Sunday.
- Combine With: The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House or Temple Church.
Sir John Soane’s Museum
- What: The house and collection of famous architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), virtually untouched since his death. There’s also a great gift shop.
- Artefacts: Classical chunks of stonework and plasterwork, historic paintings by the likes of Hogarth, treasures bought at auction, and books dating back centuries. For a similar time capsule feeling, see Dennis Severs House, in Spitalfields, where artist Severs redecorated his house to emphasise its 18th century roots as the home of Huguenot silk weavers, creating a ‘still life drama’ art experience.
- Where: 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields (nearest tube is Holborn).
- Cost: Free.
- Open: 10:00-17:00 Tuesday-Saturday, last entry 16:30. Candlelit evening openings, 18:00-21:00, first Tuesday of every month; queue from 17:30.
- Combine With: The Hunterian Museum, the Museum of Comedy, or the British Museum.
Do you have a favourite to add to the hidden London museums list? I’m always open to travel tips!