London’s quirkiest museums

The weirdest museums in the capital. Expect treats like an original Coco the clown costume, Freud’s patient couch, and ECG equipment used on King George VI in 1951.

Clowns Gallery Museum

Bluebottle, Gingermutt, Spotty and Mattie run this clown museum located in a Dalston church, and open on the first Friday of every month. Inside is a colourful exploding ‘mushroom clown’ (geddit) of unicycles, water-spurting trolleys, giant shoes and noses in varying tones of red. Other prized objects include a costume that belonged to Coco the Clown, and a figurine of Regency-era clown Joseph Grimaldi that dates back to the early 19th century. Also look out for the Clown Egg Register – a collection of ceramic eggs representing every clown in Britain. Each one is painted with an individual’s distinguishing  clown makeup design (the etiquette is every clown should embellish their face in a unique way).

Secret tip: Ask one of the owners to see the church’s clown-inspired stained-glass window. And for a magic trick.

Opens the first Friday of every month 12pm-5pm; 020 7608 0312; Holy Trinity Church, Cumberland Close E8 3DY. 

Anaesthesia


Think antiquated tubes of ethyl chloride stacked next to battered old sterilising kits, and army medical bags from the Second World War. There are Hypodermic needle packets from the Forties, and the ECG equipment used on King George VI when he was battling lung cancer in 1951.

Secret tip: Watch out for the resuscitation set that dates back to 1774, and the table upon which the first operation under ether was performed. Also, it’s advisable to call in advance to say you’re coming.

Free entry. Monday to Friday 10am-4pm; 21 Portland Place W1B 1PY; 020 7631 1650; aagbi.org

Fan Museum

A bit niche. But weirdly compelling. Over 5,000 fans from all over the world dating back to the 11th century are on display. Think everything from absurd Roaring Twenties creations stitched from tortoise shells to deliciously gaudy pieces made from peacock plumes. My favourite are the 18th-century hand-coloured fans depicting English seaside scenes.

Secret tip: Afterwards, head to the orangery for a ridiculously cheap and delicious afternoon tea complete with scones and cakes for £8 per person (four fixed sittings daily Tuesday to Sunday; bookings essential).

£4 entry; Tuesday to Saturday 11am-5pm and Sundays 12pm-5pm; 12 Crooms Hill Greenwich SE10 8ER; 020 8305 1441; thefanmuseum.org.uk

Freud Museum

The home of Sigmund Freud and his family after they fled from the Nazis in Austria in 1938. The focal point is Freud’s perfectly-preserved study with shelves of books related to psychoanalysis and 2,000 items clustered in cabinets, from ancient figurines to Egyptian shabti dolls. Watch out for Freud’s psychoanalytic couch, covered with an Iranian rug and chenille cushion. The house, which retains all of its Austrian finery, from Biedermeier chests to 18th-century painted country furniture, is an eerie, edifying time capsule.

Secret tip: Opt for an audio guide; the narrative is engaging and informative. Don’t miss the garden blooming with Freud’s roses and begonias.

£7 Wednesday to Monday 12pm- 5pm; 20 Maresfield Gardens NW3 5SX; 020 7435 2002; freud.org.uk

Magic Circle Museum

A delightful little museum space a the headquarters of Britain’s most important magic association.  There is an original Sooty puppet, apparatus that Tommy Cooper used for his tricks, and a recording of Harry Houdini. Glass cabinets are filled with skulls, silk handkerchiefs and magic cards with gently yellowing edges. Vintage magic wands sit alongside children’s magic sets in old cardboard packaging.

Secret tip: Unfortunately the museum is not open to drop-in visits from non-members. But you can get around this by attending one of the circle’s public events.

Centre for the Magic Arts, 12 Stephenson Way, Kings Cross NW1 2HD; 020 7387 2222; themagiccircle.co.uk

Horniman Museum

An unwieldy, exciting and bizarre feast of anthropological artefacts, musical instruments from around the world and aquarium fish. Think everything from Moroccan opium pipes and Shangana-Tonga divination bags to Aborigine bullroarers – rare instruments distinctive for their roaring vibrato sound.

Secret tip: Don’t miss the delectably revolting insect taxidermy collection here: 4700 butterflies, 2000 beetles and a swarm of parasitic wasps.

Free entry; open daily 10.30am-5.30pm; 100 London Road, Forest Hill SE23 3PQ; 020 8699 1872; horniman.ac.uk

Twinings

Learn about the history of tea at a museum tucked away in the 300-year-old shop of the world’s most famous chai brand. Delights include a copy of the original royal warrant awarded to Twinings in 1837 by Queen Victoria., historic packaging and a sumptuous collection of tea caddies.

Secret tip: Book one of the two-hour tea masterclasses for an introduction to the history of British tea culture and a tasting session involving six different types of teas.

Free entry. Masterclasses £30 per person. Museum open Monday to Friday 9.30am-8pm; Saturday 10am-5pm; Sunday 11am-6pm; 216 Strand WC2R 1AP; 020 7353 3511; twinings.co.uk

Old operating theatre

The oldest operating theatre in Europe, located in the roof of a Baroque English church. The 17th-century surgical slab is located in a building that was part of the old St Thomas Hospital, and walking around you get a deeply troubling sense of how it would have been to go under the knife here 400 years ago – with chloroform rather than anaesthetic, and in front of a crowd of students gawping in the galleries above.

Secret tip: Also take time to explore the adjoining herb garret in the roof, where the old hospital used to store medicinal plants.

Entry £6.50; open daily 10.30am- 5pm; 9a St. Thomas’s Street SE1 9RY; 020 7188 2679; thegarret.org.uk

Freemasonry Museum

This place – stuffed with Masonic regalia and documentation of famous freemasons – is a rare window into one of the country’s most mysterious institutions. The museum tracks Freemasonry’s historical development since the 16th century. Think gold-brushed masonic chairs, lustering jewels, and regalia that belonged to freemasons like Winston Churchill and Edward VII. Visitors will also learn about masonic dining etiquette and the spread of freemasonry abroad. Opt for one of the free tours at 11am, 12pm, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm weekdays or 10.30am and 2pm Saturdays.

Secret tip: they also do some quirky workshops here – like printing your own 16th-century masonic apron. Check the website for details.

Open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm; Freemasons Hall, 60 Great Queen Street WC2B 5AZ; 020 7395 9257; freemasonry.london.museum

The Musical Museum

It holds one of the world’s biggest collections of self-playing musical instruments. Think crackly-voiced American Wurtlitzer jukeboxes, the full, soaring sound of self-playing violins, and organs that automatically boom out sound. The display of tinkling children’s clockwork music boxes are engineered to induce a smile.

Secret tip: It’s more worthwhile to combine a visit with a live demonstration of the instruments: 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm.

Free entry; Tuesday, Friday Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11am-5pm; last entry 4pm. £6.50; 399 High Street Brentford TW8 0DU; 020 8560 8108; musicalmuseum.co.uk

Pollock’s Toy Museum

It’s got the creep-factor, with its collection of glass-eyed Victorian toys spread out over six creaking rooms and up winding staircases. There’s everything from a 3000-year-old Egyptian toy mouse to dolls with thick ringlets and acidic smiles peering out from a baby cot. Tin toys bristle against vintage puppets, miniature theatres made of paper, and musical boxes. It’s in Fitzrovia, so a handy place to drop in if you’re in town on a shopping trip.

Secret tip: The owner’s dog, Haggis, is very friendly so feel free to give him a pet. It’s a spooky and nostalgic kind of place with noisy floorboards and flaking paint, so adults rather than children will appreciate it.

£6 entry; Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm; last admission 4.30pm; 1 Scala Street W1T 2HL; 020 7636 3452; pollocksmuseum.co.uk

 
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