London museums: Six of the most unusual

SIR JOHN SOANE'S MUSEUM

The dividing line between museum and eccentric private collection is very blurry here. Neoclassical architect John Soane was quite the hoarder, and his trophies are displayed in a series of terraced houses. Expect Roman busts, Peruvian pottery, an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, thousands of architectural drawings and medieval stained glass. The treasures may be eclectic but what makes the experience so bizarre is the way everything is displayed. Whereas most museums give each artefact respectful, dignified space, Sir John Soane's goes for borderline anarchic clutter, to the point where you're almost clambering through everything.

See soane.org

CHURCHILL WAR ROOMS

London, UK - October 19, 2016 - Tourists queueing to get into Churchill War Rooms satfeb22six

This labyrinth of corridors below the government buildings and offices of Westminster was from where the Allied resistance against Nazi Germany was co-ordinated during World War II. It is unrelentingly austere down there, with dummies and planning maps in place to give an idea of what it was like. Part of the complex is now a museum devoted to British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the biggest surprise is the door that everyone thought led to Churchill's own private toilet. This was a brilliant piece of misdirection – it was where the private phone line to US president Franklin D Roosevelt was kept.

See iwm.org.uk

OLD OPERATING THEATRE MUSEUM & HERB GARRET

DXBRTC Old Operating Theatre museum and Herb Garret. Red sign with skull and crossbones at entrance - St Thomas Street, London, Uk satfeb22six

Photo: Alamy 

The location is weird enough – up a spiral staircase in the tower of St Thomas' Church – but the subject matter is even more disturbing. Originally used for storing medicinal herbs, it was converted in the early 19th century to host Britain's oldest surviving operating theatre. Now a museum, it delves into medicine and surgical procedures of the past. This is partly about herbal remedies, but the bits that stick in the memory are the horrendous tools used back before anaesthetic was a thing. It's not all grimness, though – this is also where Florence Nightingale set up her nursing school.

See oldoperatingtheatre.com

ALEXANDER FLEMING MUSEUM

DGMN50 St. Mary's Hospital, Alexander Fleming Museum, Paddington, London, England, United Kingdom, Europe satfeb22six

Photo: Alamy 

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London has plenty of bizarre medical museums, but the Alexander Fleming Museum takes pride of place because it is inside a working hospital. It tells the story of penicillin, both its discovery and the rushed mass manufacture of it that arguably saved countless lives in World War II. But it also contains the lab of Fleming, where one morning in 1928, he discovered a window had been left open and a blue-green mould had contaminated a Petri dish. He spotted that the mould stymied the growth of the bacteria in the dish, and once he found out that mould was penicillin, a medical revolution was underway.

See imperial.nhs.uk

THE FAN MUSEUM

CNF2DF The Fan Museum Greenwich London UK satfeb22six

Photo: Alamy 

In a world that is now regularly air-conditioned, there's not so much use for the humble hand fan. But the people behind the Fan Museum in Greenwich are still fighting the good fight, devoting a while museum to fans. Once you start investigating the collection, it's pretty easy to see that they're not so humble either. In times past, there was clearly a sense of fashion and one-upmanship applied to the fans, with designs and fabrics being used as a display of status, wealth and taste. The museum owns more than 4000 fans, with the oldest in the collection dating back to the 10th century.

See thefanmuseum.org.uk

THAMES BARRIER INFORMATION CENTRE

CP7RH0 The Thames Barrier flood prevention scheme information centre in Woolwich London England UK satfeb22six

Photo: Alamy 

Next to the Thames Barrier – which stretches 520 metres across the River Thames with a system of 10 oddly photogenic steel gates – this little exhibition tells the story of efforts to stop London flooding. The Barrier, one of the largest movable flood barriers in the world when it opened in 1984, is designed to regulate the flow of water through London. In the past, floods have been caused by tidal surges through the Thames Estuary, and the high tech solution was put in place to minimise the chances of this happening again. Engineering geeks will love it.

See visitlondon.com

David Whitley was a guest of Visit Britain.

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