So you’ve trawled the British Museum for Egyptian relics, the Science Museum for dinosaur bones and the V&A for Art Nouveau designer flair, but now you’d like to visit something a little different… London’s top-drawer museums are just the tip of the iceberg in this huge metropolis, and there are scores of tucked-away gems in this English capital of all things eccentric. To get you started, here is our list of London’s most idiosyncratic museum experiences.
1. Dennis Severs House
Dennis Severs House is not a museum at all – rather, it’s like entering a time and imagination capsule that’s quite unlike anything else in London.
The Georgian terrace house at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields re-creates the imagined life of a house and its silk-weaver occupants over the centuries. Only candlelight illuminates your path as you make your way from one room to the next, one floor to the next. Adding to the sensorial experience are whispered voices and subtle sound effects, as if the occupants of the empty room you stand in have only just left.
The scents of wine, tobacco, scones and potpourri fill the air as candles light up each tableau: an unfinished 18th-century feast of bread and fruit in the living room, a half-eaten breakfast of boiled eggs and toast in the bedroom.
It’s almost impossible to convey the magic of a visit to Dennis Severs House: the experience embraces poetry, history, drama and art. The motto of the house is ‘you either see it or you don’t’, and when you visit (on Sunday afternoons only), you’ll appreciate the requests for silence so the atmosphere and your imagination can take hold.
2. Old Operating Theatre Museum
Museums don’t get much quirkier or gorier than the Old Operating Theatre Museum, at the top of a winding staircase in the rooftop garret of St Thomas Church. Before being used as an operating theatre, the garret was used to store and cure medicinal herbs used by the hospital.
A semicircular ring of seats looks over the operating theatre, lit by a skylight for maximum light. Students and apprentice apothecaries would look on as surgeons performed speedy and painful operations on the unfortunate patients, in a time well before antiseptics and anaesthetics.
Display cases in the attic reveal the painful realities of life in days gone by, with all sorts of scalpels and hammers and forceps on display. The smell of dried herbs and the attic’s old beams add to the atmosphere.
St Thomas Church is on the south bank of the Thames in Southwark, on the former site of St Thomas’ Hospital.
3. Geffrye Museum
History buffs and interior designers alike will love the Geffrye Museum, on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch in London’s East End. The museum buildings are special enough, a rare survivor of a low row of almshouses from 1714.
The long succession of rooms is ideal for the museum’s contents, taking you on a room by room stroll through English history as you take in a series of domestic interiors.
The 11 period parlours begin at around 1600, and end with a funky warehouse apartment typical of the present day. The rooms’ vintage furnishings, decor, details and ornaments evoke the various eras, revealing the possessions and traditions their middle-class occupants held dear. The living rooms are especially evocative if you visit at Christmas, when each is decorated in period fashion for the festive season.
Don’t miss the shop at the end of the room displays – it has a great selection of books if you’re interested in domestic architecture and interiors, plus a small range of London gifts.
4. Pollock’s Toy Museum
Board games, dolls, teddy bears, tin cars, puppets, doll’s houses, toy theatres – big and little kids will love the array of children’s toys on display in at the Pollock’s Toy Museum. Pollock was a maker of toy theatres, and the collection of cardboard theatres brought together here is especially fine. Narrow winding stairs lead to tiny rooms filled to the brim with every toy imaginable, divertingly displayed to provide a surprise around every corner.
As well as much-loved childhood toys from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, there are English dolls and European folk toys, plus, of course, a toyshop on the ground floor. The museum is housed in twin terrace houses, one dating from the 18th century and the other from the 19th century, adding a special atmosphere to this fun, quirky museum.
5. Twinings Museum
When it’s time for tea in London, make your way to the Twinings tea shop on the Strand. It’s tucked away but easy to find – just look for the white pediment dating from 1787, topped by the Twinings gold lion flanked by two brightly painted Chinese purveyors of tea.
Inside you’ll find an extraordinary array of different teas, loose leaf and bagged. Keep walking through this narrow shop until you come to a small museum at the end, where you can hear more about the Twinings Company and their famous teas, learn tea preparation techniques and compare tea-making paraphernalia past and present.
- Janet Austin