“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” – Samuel Johnson.
Samuel Johnson certainly knew how to coin a phrase, but his words still ring true today. London is rich in history and never fails to show visitors something different at every turn. But see only the well-known sights and you’ll merely be scratching the surface. We’re delving deeper and discovering London’s hidden delights by visiting its most obscure museums. So join us as we snub the tourist trail and head off-piste to uncover some of the capital’s best kept secrets.
In the early 1700s, Thomas Corman was so distressed at the sight of all the abandoned children (or ‘foundlings’) on London’s streets, that he petitioned King George II to set up a charity. This became The Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity that helped over 25,000 children between 1741 and 1954. Nowadays, it’s a hidden gem of a museum and art gallery providing real insight into London’s history.
Established in 1984, the Museum of Brands celebrates the world of design and advertising. Walk through the ‘time tunnel’, a physical timeline showing how consumer culture has evolved, decade-by-decade, over the last two centuries. You’ll see how iconic brands developed through the 12,000 individual items that make up the collection, including cosmetics from 1890 and confectionary from the 1930s. It’ll give you a brand new perspective on everyday life.
If a day’s entertainment for the whole family is what you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong at the Horniman Museum. It offers eight different environments including an aquarium, hands-on music gallery, nature base and its Centenary Gallery. In the natural history area, you’ll discover a dinosaur exhibition perfect for budding palaeontologists. Visit on a Saturday morning and you can even explore the farmers’ market in the gardens.
Attend pretty much any public event and you’ll see the St John’s Ambulance staff on hand to provide first aid. But you may not know that the organisation dates back nearly 1,000 years; the ancient Order of St John began caring for sick pilgrims in 11th-century Jerusalem. This museum recently underwent a multi-million pound redevelopment and now has brand new facilities to teach visitors about the Order’s aims.
After marvelling at rare illuminated manuscripts and ancient armour, take a stroll around the calm Cloister Garden to finish off your tour of this beautiful Tudor building.
Situated next to the iconic Westminster Bridge, this museum commemorates the pioneering Florence Nightingale, or ‘The Lady of the Lamp’. She tended the wounded on many a dangerous battlefield during the Crimean War and is regarded as the founder of modern nursing. As you explore the collection, you’ll see her childhood possessions, artefacts from the hospitals she worked in and even her pet owl, Athena.
This treat of a museum walks you through the life and works of celebrated author Charles Dickens. Housed in Dickens’s London home, its latest addition is a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the BBC’s imaginative series Dickensian. If you didn’t catch it, you’ll be seeking out the box set as soon as you’ve finished your tour. See the desk where Dickens created his characters or visit the gift shop and buy a bowl printed with those immortal words “Please sir… I want some more”. It really brings the imagination of this extraordinary author to life.
To be considered a true, elegant lady in society, one had to perfect the art of the fan. This wonderful museum in Greenwich celebrates these delicate objects and the craft of making them. It really was a flirtation device, allowing stolen glances and romances across many an 18th century ballroom: flutter it seductively in a gentleman’s direction, or use it to cool down and prevent swooning. Here you can discover the most intricate designs hand-painted onto silk before taking afternoon tea… sure to delight any Jane Austen aficionados.
Head to the Garret museum in Southwark to discover the fascinating history of medicine. You’ll find a two hundred-year-old operating theatre (arranged so spectators could observe the operations taking place). You can also see the herb garret where apothecaries mixed and prepared herbal treatments for patients. With the occasional stomach-churning sight, it’s guaranteed to be an unforgettable visit.
If you’re intrigued by the mind and subconscious, there’s one obscure museum you really should visit: the Freud Museum. Located in the former Hampstead home of the famed psychoanalyst and his family, you can explore the actual study where he developed his famed theories. During your tour, see if you can spot the iconic couch that we now associate so closely with the idea of psychotherapy.
Located just minutes from Tottenham Court Road tube station, the Cartoon Museum showcases the creative world of cartoons and its dynamic history. From political newspaper sketches poking fun at public figures to modern-day graphic novels, it traces the development of this popular art form over the centuries. The museum has late-night openings, too, adding a new twist to the traditional museum experience.