The Secret Museums of London

An insider's look at little-known museums home to fascinating cultural treasures

When I was younger and under constant supervision by my parents on weekends, I was often dragged along to a newly opened exhibition at a local museum or gallery. There was usually a promise of a nice meal before or after which was enough to motivate me as a foodie-in-training, but mainly because as a child it was as if I wasn’t supposed to like going. Perhaps that’s the stereotype of many museums and galleries these days, especially when considering kids. Certainly as I got older I grew to appreciate them much more. Now I’m quite happy to spend the day wandering around London’s V&A or the National Gallery. 

But a change of pace is always welcome in my book, and what better place than London to have a poke around and find something new to discover. These five museums are decidedly off the beaten path (I’m looking at you, South Kensington!), but still every bit as interesting and worthy of visiting. And best of all, they’re all free. 

An Architect's Collection

Sir John Soane's Museum, London
Former home of Sir John Soane, now filled with his collection (©Derry Moore)

In a rather unassuming building (at least from the exterior), you’ll find the former residence of architect Sir John Soane, whose Regency-era townhouse was given to the public to be turned into a museum in 1837. But appearances can be deceiving; once inside you’ll be lead through a complex maze of both surprisingly expansive and narrow rooms and hallways filled to the brim with artefacts and artwork spanning several floors. Don’t miss the room of paintings with famed works by English satirical artist William Hogarth, and the Monk’s parlour in the basement, housing the 3,000 year old Sarcophagus of Egyptian King, Seti I.

Fascinating Fashions

Tucked away in charming Bermondsey Village, the Fashion and Textile Museum lies a stones’ throw from Borough Market. Founded by iconic British designer Zandra Rhodes and run by Newham College, it features a rotating collection of items relating to fashion, jewellery and textile design. During my visit the rebozo, the classic Mexican shawl made famous in 20th-century culture by artist Frida Kahlo, was profiled and all aspects of the garment were explored, from creation and production, to historical significance throughout the ages. Stop by the gift shop, often stocked with pieces from local designers and design students.

The Human Body Exposed

Crystal Gallery at Hunterian Museum
Specimens on display at Crystal Gallery (©Museums at the Royal College of Surgeons)

The Hunterian Museum is famed for its extensive collection of human specimens highlighting each part of the body, placed alongside those of animals as a means of comparison. Check out the preserved skeleton of Charles Byrne, the ‘Irish Giant’, who died in 1783. In addition, on the floor upstairs, surgical practices throughout the ages are highlighted including an impressive display of the museum’s surgical instrument collection. Just one word of warning: best not to visit directly after lunch if you easily feel squeamish. 

English and their Homes 

1960s style interiors in the Geffrye Museum, London
Inimitable style of English 1960s living rooms, Geffrye Museum (©Chris Ridley)

Situated in an often unexplored area of Shoreditch, the Geffrye Museum provides a fascinating glimpse into how houses in London have changed over the course of 400 years, both in use and function as well as design. There are eleven period rooms to explore, representing the main living space used by a family and their guests and outfitted with period appropriate furniture and fixtures. Weather permitting, wander in the museum’s adjacent gardens, including a herb garden with over 170 different plants and herbs, including some traditionally associated with English herb gardens, such as roses, honeysuckles and lilies.

Animal Magic

Part of University College London, the Grant Museum of Zoology is a firm favourite with both the young and the young at heart and houses around 67,000 specimens covering the entirety of the animal kingdom all in one room. Highlights include Dodo bird bones, one of seven Quagga (an ancient South African zebra variety) skeletons, antlers from a giant deer, and my personal favourite, a jar of moles preserved in fluid.