Visiting a Collection of Unusual Museums in London


Move away from London’s most famous landmarks – Buckingham palace, Trafalgar Square, Westminster – and see the city’s history from a range of radically different perspectives, none of which are ordinary!

These lesser-known museums tell some of London’s more rarely-heard stories. They can show us what London looked like to Elizabethan sex workers or to enslaved West Africans. They tell their stories through the eyes of poets, psychoanalysts, and suffragettes.

[Also see our travel article “A Family Holiday in Greater London“]

The Clink

The box office is located behind thick iron bars; on admission, a heavy metal door swings back with an atmospheric creak to usher you into the darkness beyond…

The Clink Museum is a reconstruction of a notorious prison in which the criminals and unfortunates of London’s Southwark were incarcerated from 1144 to 1780. The Clink prison itself actually moved around frequently, being burnt, destroyed, and re-built on numerous occasions during that 600-year span – but always within a small radius of the where the museum stands today. It claims to be “one of England’s oldest, if not the oldest prison,” and its name is thought to come from the sound made when manacles were hammered shut around an inmate’s wrist.

Reading Suggestion: See 5 tips, like when to book your ticket, from the Hopper research team that can save travelers hundreds on their flights to London.

The museum sets out to evoke, with humour and no aversion to the gruesome and macabre, the experiences of The Clink’s prisoners through its 600 years of operation. Winding passageways, low-beamed wooden doorframes, straw-strewn mud floors and soot-dark brick walls enclose your visit. Glass display cases exhibit the manacles, metal tools, and leather shoes worn by rich inmates that were once a part of the prison’s daily life. Some objects – heavy lead collars, ball-and-chains, even steel chastity belts – are placed out, allowing visitors to feel the weight of the shackles that bound inmates.

Life-size figures stand in filthy stalls, narrating the daring, illuminating or just plain gruesome experiences of particular prisoners. Other mannequins silently depict especially dark aspects of the prison’s procedure. Perhaps the most likely to haunt your imagination is the depiction of an oubliette, a lightless cellar in which people were thrown and forgotten, and the first place to flood with Thames sewage at high tide. A man’s sore-ravaged hand claws out of a wooden trapdoor, which is closing down on his panic-stricken face.

An exciting exploration of London's scary past awaits anyone brave enough to enter The Clink.

An exciting exploration of London's scary past awaits anyone brave enough to enter The Clink.

The prison guides you through a little of the South Bank’s history, too. It tells how Southwark, today an affluent area right in the heart of London , was in the 16th and 17th Centuries a magnet for those seeking a debauched night of carousal. It was particularly notorious for its ‘stewe houses,’ or brothels. The prostitutes working there were known as ‘the Winchester geese,’ probably because of their white aprons and yellow hoods; to return from Southwark with an STD – a common occurrence – was to have been ‘bitten by a Winchester goose.’ The prison also directs visitors to the nearby ‘Cross Bones graveyard’, a non-Christian burial site where many of these woman’s bodies were thrown, piled on top of each other, once they had died. This graveyard is now home to a number of memorials and tributes to them, beginning to compensate for centuries of neglect by historians.

Other rooms tell of the religious conflicts that divided England following the protestant Reformation. Waxwork priests intone tales of incarcerated Catholics risking all to conduct clandestine 3 am masses. The horrific crackdowns that followed Catholic attempts on the lives of Queen Elizabeth and King James I are viscerally described.

One large room focuses on torture and execution, with models of the ‘rack’ and ‘scavenger’s daughter’, and descriptions of various types of execution. Boiling, we are told, was a particularly horrible way to die: “death was slow and agonising, as the criminal’s skin, muscle and fat cooked, eventually falling away from the bone…” In one straw and muck-heaped corner, an especially grisly exhibit depicts the gibbet: a cage displaying the decaying bodies of wrongdoers, often hung from trees at crossroads, or even from London Bridge, as a warning to others. The museum’s representation, like many of its exhibits, has neat little touches to deepen the gruesomeness; in this case, a raven perched above the ragged corpse with a bloody eyeball dangling from its beak.

The Clink is an evocative, grim, and educational museum, bringing to life some of the darkest sides of London’s history while sneakily informing you of the social and political complexities in which they were embedded. It doesn’t suit very young children, but once they’ve reached a certain age many will probably find the macabre quality enthralling. And an adult’s eyes will undoubtedly learn something new, too.

Address: The Clink Prison, Clink Street, Southwark, London, SE1.
Opening Hours: Summer (July-September): 7 Days a Week, 10am-9pm; Winter (October-June): Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Weekend: 10am -7.30pm.
Prices: Adults: £7; Children (Under 16): £5.50; Concessions (Student, OAP, Disabled): £5.50; Family: (2 Adults and 2 Children under 16): £17.00.
Wheelchair Access: No.

Photo credit: Sir James / Wikimedia Commons

London Docklands Museum

Telling the story of London from the perspective of its riverside, the Docklands Museum takes its visitors on a lengthy and diverse voyage through the city’s eventful history. We travel from the first port in the vicinity of London, Roman Londinium in 50CE, all the way through to late 20th-century developments such as Canary Wharf, the sky-scraping office blocks which once again placed the banks of the Thames at the heart of the financial world.

The Museum is appropriately located by the West India Docks, which were the first commercial shipping docks to open in 1602 and the last to close in 1980. The building it inhabits is a former Victorian warehouse, used to store sugar and other products that came into the Docks from the Caribbean. A little further downstream there are the East India Docks, which despite the deceptively similar name actually sent and received ships from the other side of the world, plying the spice and textile trades in Persia and India. The whole area is swathed in a globe-encompassing history, and it is this that the museum aims to bring to life.

It is a great contrast to The Clink, with the exhibits housed in big, airy, brightly-coloured rooms. The earliest years, from Roman invasion and the establishment of the Londinium port through Roman withdrawal, the Saxon conquest, the Viking incursions, and finally Norman dominance in 1066, are always the hardest to evoke. The museum employs British TV presenter and affable history buff Tony Robinson to present short videos at each of these historical junctures. Robinson enthusiastically describes what archaeological excavations have revealed about life by the Thames over the last two millennia. Specimens of these archaeological digs – lead ingots, a large Roman vase used to transport fish sauce from Spain, the stamped ceramic tile of a Roman official – are on display in glass cabinets.

The London Docklands Museum reveals the history of life on the docks.

The London Docklands Museum reveals the history of life on the docks.

Beyond these disinterred fragments, short videos, and written blurbs, there are an impressive range of other exhibits. Intricate models show how London Bridge has changed through the ages. Vivid illustrations capture particularly important battles, and vast canvases depict the lively bustle of Georgian dockland activity. In a short, dubiously-acted drama, port officials quaff ale and consider the perils of piracy.

Once we reach the eighteenth century, there is even a life-size recreation of a winding set of quayside streets, complete with a pervasive fishy stench. You can dart into a tavern pungent with the smells of wood smoke and stale beer, or into seedy-looking sailors’ lodgings in which, mercifully, there’s been no attempt to recreate an authentic odour. The window of a wharf operator’s counting house brings to mind a crueller side to the burgeoning economic development of 18th Century London: a poster offers financial reward for the capture and return of “a runaway negro.”

To its credit, the museum confronts this particular aspect of London’s mercantile past, in the extensive exhibition London Sugar and Slavery. As the introduction to the Gallery admits, “London benefited enormously from the transatlantic slave trade … The business of slavery primed hundreds of companies, banks, and private estates.” Talking heads, displays of the opulent output produced on the back of the slave trade, narratives of personal experience, tales of revolt and rebellion, and carvings from Africa before European contact, come together to provide an honest account of London’s expanding economic success, and the lives of those it destroyed through ruthless exploitation.

The museum’s chronology continues to consider the dock workers’ strikes of the early 20th Century, through World War Two when the Docklands became a focus of Nazi bombing raids, and up to the present day. It covers a vast amount of ground, and much of it in impressive detail – it’s really quite enormous. If you want to take it all in, you might wish to visit twice, dividing the history it encompasses in two. But a great deal can be learnt from just a cursory mosey around its exhibits. The Docklands Museum provides a highly distinctive and eye-opening perspective on London’s layered and hectic history.

Address: London Docklands Museum, West India Quay, London, E14 4AL.
Opening Hours: Daily 10am-6pm.
Admission: Free.
Wheelchair Access: Fully accessible throughout.

Photo credit: Gordon Joly / Wikimedia Commons

The Wellcome Collection

A grand and eccentric assemblage of artefacts and exhibitions on the themes of human health, science and anthropology, The Wellcome Collection is situated directly opposite Euston Station. It describes itself as a “destination for the incurably curious.”

The collection has a unique history. Its roots lie in the life of Sir Henry Wellcome, an American-British pharmaceutical entrepreneur who lived from 1853 to 1936. Wellcome amassed a huge fortune through his business work, and left much of it to The Wellcome Trust, his philanthropic legacy which he hoped would drive improvements in human and animal health. But Wellcome was also an obsessive collector and passionate traveller, gathering 1.5 million items from around the world in his lifetime. These objects reflected his interests in health and the human body, but also extended to an anthropological interest in other how other cultures understood these issues and, more broadly, the world around them.

The Collection is run by the Wellcome Trust. It is made up of two permanent exhibitions on the second floor, a library on the third, and changing exhibitions on specific subjects on the ground. It also has a spacious and comfortable café, and a large Blackwell’s bookshop to peruse.

The first of its permanent exhibitions is Medicine Man, which displays a cross-section of nearly 500 objects from Henry Wellcome’s vast collection, as well as detailing a little of his life. A free audio tour takes twenty of the objects and discusses each of them in some detail. These discussions offer brief snapshots that catapult you around the world.

In one corner hangs a jaundiced wooden mask, covered in blistering sores and wounds. This mask comes from a community in Sri Lanka, and is used to treat ill-health through a masked performance that invokes and defeats the demon deemed responsible for causing the disease. On the opposite side of the room, a cabinet displays a range of prosthetic limbs from the last eight centuries of history. Here, the tour transports us to the American Civil War, explaining that it was the first to use modern weaponry and so resulted in a staggering upsurge in the number of amputees – 30,000 on the Union side alone. It is an intriguingly unpredictable way to explore how damage to the body has been sustained and treated around the world.

A painting in the Wellcome Collection entitled 'The Vaccine'.

A painting in the Wellcome Collection entitled 'The Vaccine'.

Next door is the Medicine Now exhibition, which goes beyond Henry Wellcome’s collection to explore issues that the Wellcome Trust is interested in today. There are scientific exhibits on the body, genomes, malaria, obesity, and the experience of medicine. Alongside these there are also a couple of large, red and white ‘art cubes’ that exhibit artists’ responses to a selection of scientific developments; for example, concerns about the power of cloning and genetic engineering to eradicate human individuality

On the ground floor, there is a large gallery space which houses exhibitions that change every few months. Previous exhibitions have explored topics such as drug use and intoxication through the ages, and 20th Century attitudes to mental health. The latest exhibition, at the time of writing, is ‘Superhuman’, an investigation into human enhancement, in line with the London Olympics. It runs from July 19th to 16th October 2012.

Address: 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.
Opening Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday Saturday: 10am-6pm; Thursday: 10am-10pm; Sunday: 11am-6pm; Mondays: Closed, except Bank Holidays: 12-6pm.
Prices: Free.
Wheelchair Access: Yes – higher floors can be reached by lift.

Freud Museum

The Nazis hated Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, for being Jewish, but also for the same reasons many people did – because they felt his unswerving focus on unconscious instincts and drives detracted from the ‘nobility of man.’ In 1933 his books were publicly burnt in Germany. In 1938, following the Anschluss or German occupation of Austria, Freud was forced to flee his home in Vienna. He came to London, and in September moved into a beautiful house in Hampstead. He died there in 1954, but the house remained with the Freud family until the death of his daughter Anna in 1982. The house was then turned into a museum, in line with her wishes, and opened to the public in July 1986.

The house has been neatly divided into several main areas, each of which allow you to explore different aspects of Freud’s life and work. There is also substantial information about his daughter Anna Freud, who followed her father into psychoanalysis. Each room is filled with the possessions of Freud and his family: ornate furniture, portraits, landscapes, books, and most strikingly the myriad antiquities from Greece, Rome, Egypt and East Asia that Freud collected. As he would suggest, we should be able to intuit and understand a great deal about Freud and his family from the objects alone. Freud called this “the psychopathology of everyday life” – the way in which we express our deep-rooted desires and fears through the objects with which we surround ourselves.

To help you with this interpretation, as you move through the spacious house, there is an engaging and informative audio tour. It lasts forty minutes and costs a very worthwhile £1 extra on top of the entry cost. The tour ties together a narrative of Freud’s life with cursory but illuminating introductions to his thought, and to a selection of his works. We are brought into each of these through the lens of a particular object in the house. Up on the landing, for example, hang a pair of sinister paintings: four white wolves perch on the branches of a snow-covered tree and stare directly out at the observer. These invoke the case of the Wolf Man, a Russian aristocrat who was one of Freud’s most famous patients, in whose childhood dreams this image appeared.

Anna Freud’s bedroom, overlooking the peaceable garden, is still well-furnished. In one corner stands the large wooden loom which Anna used as a form of occupational therapy, helping her to think through her ideas. In glass cabinets, there are various photographs of Anna, including some of her working with children – the area in which she conducted her most pioneering psychoanalytical study.

Next door to Anna’s bedroom there is a rolling projection of home videos of the Freud family, with some footage from Vienna, through their sojourn in Paris, before eventually making it to London and safety. They are very intimate, and deepen the atmosphere felt when exploring the rest of the house – it might be worth watching them first. Next door is an exhibition room displaying artworks explicitly concerned with psychoanalytic themes. Until the 16th of September 2012, John Goto’s series Dreams of Jelly Roll is on display.

But most striking of all is undoubtedly Sigmund Freud’s study. At its centre stands Freud’s desk, crowded with carved figures from many past cultures and civilisations. In discussing these objects, the audio guide explains Freud’s obsession with archaeology – both as a metaphor for the psychoanalytic process, digging through psychic layers to uncover the root cause of distress, but also as a literal discipline of great importance if we are to understand the mind today. Then there is “one of the most famous pieces of furniture in the world today,” Freud’s couch, which is accompanied by evocative descriptions of Freud’s therapeutic method. All around you as you listen to these lucid explanations are innumerable figures, carvings, masks, jars, and tools, in bronze, ivory, wood, and terracotta, clustered on every surface in the room. It is a hugely evocative space.

Freud's couch where his many patients would spill their deepest and darkest.

Freud's couch where his many patients would spill their deepest and darkest.

Address: 20 Maresfield Gardens, London, NW3 5SX.
Opening Hours: Wednesday-Sunday: 12-5pm.
Prices: Adults: £6; Senior Citizens: £4.50; Concessions (students, children aged 12-16, unemployed persons, disabled persons): £3.00; Children under 12: Free.
Wheelchair Access: The front entrance is step-free so there is wheelchair access to the ground-floor rooms, but there are no lifts and only stairs to reach the second floor.

Photo credit: Konstantin Binder / Wikimedia Commons

Keats House

The romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) lived a short and intense life of mingled inspiration and tragedy. A great deal of each is connected to the house of his friend Charles Brown, in which Keats lived between 1818 and 1820. This building, known as Wentworth Place and situated in a quiet, leafy area of Hampstead, has been turned into a museum in memory of Keats, his life and his poetry.

When Keats was only eight years old his father died in a riding accident. Six years later his mother was killed by tuberculosis, a disease that haunted the family. Keats first moved to the village of Hampstead in 1817, to live in rooms with his two brothers, George and Tom. At this point he had abandoned extensive and costly medical training to focus on poetry (infuriating his legal guardian in the process), released his first collection of poems to general indifference, and become friends with influential London literary figures such as the poet Leigh Hunt.

Towards the end of 1818 Keats’s brother Tom died of tuberculosis. Keats had nursed him ceaselessly, and on the morning of Tom’s death he staggered from his brother’s bedside to the door of Charles Brown, stuttering, “Tom is dead.” Charles Brown, whom Keats had met through Leigh Hunt’s circle, took pity on Keats and suggested he live with him. Keats stayed at Brown’s house until worsening tuberculosis drove him to Rome and warmer climates, where he died at the age of only 25.

This small but charming home played a significant role in the life of poet John Keats.

This small but charming home played a significant role in the life of poet John Keats.

The house was turned into a museum in the 1920s, after local residents caught wind of the Council’s intention to sell it to developers. Like the Freud Museum, it is divided into several rooms, each of which reveals something different about Keats and the figures in his life. There is also a colourful, lovingly looked-after garden.

Keats wrote much of his finest poetry in the house, including several of the odes for which he is best remembered. On one famous occasion, while sitting in the parlour on a spring morning, his imagination was fired by a bird’s singing and he poured out Ode to a Nightingale almost extemporaneously. The poem opens with a reflection of what first brought him to Wentworth Place, the death of his brother:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…

Laminated copies of Keats’s poems are available to peruse in each room, so you can sit and read Ode to a Nightingale while occasionally glancing out at the garden that inspired it. Alongside the poems, there are well-chosen extracts from Keats’s letters illuminating key moments in his life, thought, and feeling. “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of imagination,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey.

In a glass cabinet in a corner of Keats’s parlour, there is a fascicle of the original manuscript of his love sonnet Bright Star. This is a reminder of another key role played by Wentworth Place in Keats’s life. A few months after he had joined Charles Brown in one half of the building, the 18-year-old Fanny Brawne moved into the other half. Keats swiftly fell passionately in love with her.

Fanny’s room has also been preserved, with examples of the fashion prints, fabric, dresses, and sketchbooks that constituted her lifelong passion and craft. There are also extracts from the love letters Keats sent her. “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute,” he wrote as the grip of his illness tightened.

The museum also runs tours of the house, about four of five times a week. They are led by enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteers. I was guided by Clive, who movingly narrated Keats’s life story, and we talked over the poetry with shining eyes afterward. These tours cost nothing on top of the entry price, but as they are run by volunteers, the times are variable and only decided upon a week in advance. So it might be worth contacting the museum, on 020 7332 3868 or through the website, to ask about timing. Different volunteers focus on different aspects of Keats’s story – his love for Fanny Brawne, his poetry, his biography – so you can mould your visit to your own personal interests.

Keats’s House is a wonderfully peaceable place to meditate on one of English literature’s greatest poets, and most tragic yet inspirational life stories.

Address: Keats House, Keats Grove, Hampstead, London, NW3 2RR
Opening Hours: Summer (1st March – 31st October): Tuesday-Sunday, 1pm-5pm; Winter (1st November-28th February): Friday-Sunday 1-5pm.
Prices: Adults: £5.00; Concessions (pensioners, students, unemployed persons): £3.00; Children Under 16: Free. These prices buy you a pass rather than a ticket, which will grant you admission to the house for a year.
Wheelchair Access: The ground floor is accessible by wheelchair, but there are no lifts to reach the second.

Photo credit: R Stones / Wikimedia Commons

The Women’s Library

The Woman’s Library has a history that is deeply rooted in the broader stories of London and social change in late-nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. It was first organised and opened by a women’s suffrage organisation in the 1920s, when half the suffrage battle was won: women over 30 could vote from 1918, but voting equality with men wasn’t achieved until 1928.

The library’s first incarnation was located in a converted public house. Over the next two decades the rooms became a major women’s centre, frequented by the writers Virginia Woolf and Vera Brittain, as well as politicians such as the pioneering MP Eleanor Rathbone.

It has an extensive collection of over 60,000 books and pamphlets, as well as periodicals, press cuttings, and a fascinating collection of oral history. These are all reference only and so can’t be taken out of the library, but they can be explored at leisure in the cosy and comfortable reading room. To use this space you need to join the library, which is free and can be done on your first visit, providing you have I.D.

Alongside the library there is a small museum with banners, badges, posters, photographs, and a wealth of other materials. The collection’s main focus is on the campaigning carried out by women on a wide range of issues over the last 150 years. This museum is open to the public but not on a walk-in basis; appointments must be made in advance.

The interior of the exhibition space at the Women's Library.

The interior of the exhibition space at the Women's Library.

Finally, the most immediately engaging part of the library is probably the special exhibition space, the subject matter of which changes every few months. At the time of writing there are two under way.

Cycling to Suffrage: The Bicycle and Women’s Rights explores the role played by the bicycle in the history of the emancipation of women, with a focus on the period between the 1890s to the intensifying fight for voter equality in the 1920s. It draws on items from the museum’s wider collection and also has some fascinating audio. This includes a snippet in which suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst describes her younger sister Christabel’s determined desire to ride when in her late teens. Pankhurst captures their father’s opposition, and the athletic ease with which Christabel rode once in the fields and hills beyond the grimy streets of Manchester, where they grew up. This exhibition runs until September 8th 2012.

The other exhibition currently showing is All Work and Low Pay: The Story of Women’s Work, which convincingly explodes the myth that women only began to work in the later part of the 20th Century. As well as revealing the great range of the work that women have undertaken over the past 150 years, it also demonstrates the ways in which this contribution has been unrecognised, undervalued, and undercompensated. It draws on the library’s collection to reveal the long, hard, continuing fight that feminist groups have fought for equal pay and fair working conditions. This exhibition runs until August 25th 2012.

It is not possible to come away from these exhibitions without being struck by the immense changes achieved by broadly feminist movements over the last 150 years, and concomitantly by how underrepresented these struggles still are.

Perhaps proving its own point, the library has often struggled for funding and faced the threat of closure on a number of occasions in its history – and such a threat hangs over it again now. This makes it a good time to go down and register your support for such a resource. The Women’s Library records historical and ongoing struggles that have played a crucial role in British history and the lives of many people all over the world. But this struggle can be buried beneath more mainstream narratives of history – the kind of narratives that less unusual London museums are sometimes guilty of sustaining.

Address: The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University, 25 Old Castle Street, Aldgate, London, E1 7NT.
Opening Hours for Exhibitions: Monday: Closed; Tuesday to Friday: 9.30am-5.30pm; Thursday until 8pm; Saturday 10am- 4pm; Sundays: Closed.
Opening Hours for Reading Room: Monday: Closed; Tuesday-Friday: 9.30am-5pm; Thursday until 8pm; Saturday and Sunday: Closed.
Prices: Free (though donations appreciated!)
Wheelchair Access: Fully accessible for wheelchair users, with lifts to all areas.

Photo credit: Peter Cook / Wikimedia Commons

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Toby is a writer and journalist with an interest in travel and adventure. His work takes him across the UK and Europe, but he lives in London. Follow Toby on Twitter @TobyStHill or find him on Google+.