Museums of London

The British compulsion to collect artifacts means that Britain has the best museums in the world - we had a whole empire to plunder. Below is a shortlist of things that our guides and surveys of visitors rate the highest, but whatever your interest, from 17th Century fans, to fan engines, there's a museum specifically catering to your taste. And virtually all of them are free....

An extremely thorough government-funded guide to museums (albeit with the sole intention of tempting you inside) is HERE. It paints everything a bit rosier than it really is - many of the museums mentioned aren't really worth visiting, but you'd never find out from the website.

The British Museum: Back from a substantial refit and better than ever, the best museum in the world where 4000 year old Pharoahs enjoy a busier afterlife than they planned for and where Karl Marx meets Buddha. Conveniently situated north of Covent Garden, on Great Russell Street, and just east of Oxford Street's main shopping drag. Remember to visit the reading room - in which, due to the numbers of tourists it is now impossible to read. The African collection, newly re-opened, is the world's largest (and the best in terms of range and quality) with over 200,000 objects, of which 600 pieces are on show to the public at any one time. If you are a collector or researcher you can make an appointment to see the rest. Saturday - Wednesday 10.00-17.30, Thursday - Friday 10.00-20.30. Free. Tube: Tottenham Court Road (Northern/Central), Bus: Tottenham Court Road or New Oxford Street.

Sir John Soane's Museum A miniature British Museum. You can visit it as part of one of our walks (which includes the Inns of Court and the Masonic Temple) that links some of London's most beautiful and least known sights. So full of objects that every bit of wall and ceiling is used. Great collection of Hogarth prints and friendly curators full of great anecdotes. Hidden panels reveal even more paintings. Tuesday to Saturday 10.00-17.00. Free.
Tube: Holborn (Central). Bus: Holborn

The Natural History & Science Museums
There's a high concentration of museums in South Kensington (well signposted from the tube) and these two are great for a rainy day. Kids love them. They celebrate the Victorian's love of Science and Nature - many of the machines that changed history are here - Britain has been the world's powerhouse of science - the Computer, the Fax, the WWW, the jet engine, the train, the television, Penicillin, the list is endless. But Tyrannosaurus Rex puts man in his place. The Natural History Museum is a beautiful building in itself - if you had to visit one museum here it's a tough decision: either the animatronic dinosaur for Jurassic Park fans, or the bells and whistles of the Science museum - better to briefly visit both as they're free.

The Science Museum's new Wellcome wing is simply astounding. It's right up to the minute - if a breakthrough is made, they'll have an exhibit up and running in as little as 24 hours. There's a team of scientists on hand conducting real experiments in which you can be a subject, if you wish - the first team took swabs from people's mouths and a photo to match facial shape with their genes. We think this vies with the Tate Modern as the best new addition to London's art/museum scene. Both open every day 10.00 to 18.00, (Natural History opens at 11:00 on Sundays). Free.
Tube: South Kensington (Circle/Piccadilly), Bus: Cromwell Road

The Victoria & Albert Museum A huge museum of culture, conveniently situated next door to the Science museums and great for Harrods. It's worth the visit for the cast rooms alone. The new British Culture galleries have been refitted and revitalised at a cost of over 31 million (subsidised in part by a gambling tax) and the museum's now entirely free - Prince Charles had a lot of fun with the interactive corset display on the opening day, confirming all our suspicions of inbreeding. What's fascinating about the British Galleries is the closeness of the objects - lots are there to be touched, and the place is crammed full of stuff (like the Soane) - anyone who's ever bought a sofa, wallpapered a room, chosen cutlery or curtains will be fascinated by the displays - but intermingled are great works of art and reconstructed period rooms. There are several resource rooms with computers, AV displays and book collections to be poured over. Tours are free, as they are of the whole museum, and you can even borrow a lightweight folding stool to take round with you.
You can spend hours in here just wandering - whatever it is you're interested, in it'll be in here - our advice, as always is to pop in several times rather than do a marathon. Less formal than the British Museum, the level of interactivity is very high and kids seem to love the hands-on stuff (eg: dressing up in old costumes, building pieces of furniture, designing their own monograms and seeing them put onto cutlery, weaving oriental carpets). Spontaneous concerts in the entrance hall on Sundays. There are regular demonstrations of crafts - for which see the website or pick up a leaflet. The cafe, which was a trendy place to hang out, is now scruffy and very expensive. Open 10.00-18.00 daily, on Wednesdays and the last Friday in the month open to 22.00). Free. Also includes Aspley House, at Hyde Park Corner (see Historic London ). For directions see Natural History Museum, above.

Imperial War Museum The name says it all, though it's not just about different ways of killing, recently they've become softer, looking at the experience of war rather than its prosecution. Some great exhibitions such as 'The Blitz' and 'The Holocaust' are quite moving. Is located on the site of St Mary's Bethlehem hospital - better known as Bedlam. 10.00-18.00 daily. Free.
Tube: Lambeth North (Bakerloo) Bus: Westminster Bridge Road/St George's Circus

National Maritime Museum In Britain you're never more than 60 miles from the sea. Britannia really did rule the waves and this is how she did it. Good reason to visit beautiful Greenwich. Open every day 10.00-17.00. Free. Tube: Cutty Sark (Docklands), Train from Waterloo. Charing Cross or London Bridge. Or try: DLR to Island Gardens, foot tunnel to Greenwich. Back by ferry.

Just because a museum is in our 'rest' section doesn't mean it's not top class - the standard of all museums is high, apart from the Clink Museum which gets a big thumbs down from visitors. Museums that are more attraction than culture are on our attractions page.

Geffrye Museum A little out of the way - but worth spending half an hour visiting if you're nearby. Converted from a row of almshouses, it's a museum of interiors, with real rooms from every period of history (from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II), laid out as they would have been at the time. Slightly more concessions to children than makes for an fascinating adult visit though. A decent collection of 20th C interiors has just been added, as well as a walled garden (which they call a 'garden room'). Only accessible by bus, from Liverpool Street Station to Kingsland Road, or a longish walk from Old St Tube. You could link this in with a visit on a Sunday to Colombia Road Flower Market (11am best, for brunch, Brick Lane, Spitalfields market, all a short distance from each other. Next door is London's Vietnamese quarter, with great restaurants... some of the best and cheapest food to be had in London - try Song Que (our favourite) which scores low on decor but high on food and price. We regularly eat there. You can also explore trendy Hoxton and Shoreditch while up this end of town.
Tube: Liverpool Street(Central), Old Street (Northern)

Museum of Garden History Small museum tucked up beside the grounds of Lambeth Palace, in the restored church of St Mary-at-Lambeth. As well as actual gardens, the museum houses ancient gardening implements, seeds and texts and other gardening ephemera and curios. Open 7 days, free admission. Tube: Lambeth North or Westminster. See our Walk One for details. Also see this Map of other gardens open in the London area.
Tube: Lambeth North(Bakerloo) Westminster (Jubilee, Circle & District)

Horniman Museum Set in 21 acres of Park, this eclectic collection was given to the nation by Frederick Horniman, the tea merchant, in 1901. Their ethnography department has a good display of african art they're also good on natural history, especially insects and birds, and specialise in musical instruments - with a collection rivalling New York's Metropolitan. However a bit too far to travel specially, and you're unlikely to be passing. 100 London Road, SE23. Train to Forest Hill from Charing Cross, then a walk uphill. Train: Forest Hill (from Waterloo)

Museum Of London Split between the duties of Archeology and Education, whether you decide to visit this museum largely depends on whether you've affection for the city - we have, and enjoy it. Superbly done and with very well thought-out temporary exhibitions (their 'Skeletons of London' won our prize for best curator a few years ago) it's rather like the museums you find in most towns and cities, but more so. Sadly it occupies an ugly building on a traffic roundabout in the city. If you were going to a play at the Barbican, which is next door, pop in here in the late afternoon. It's also nearby the fantastic St Bartholomew's Church (as featured in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral") Strangely enough John Wesley saw God underneath the footbridge that leads to this museum - a plaque marks the spot. Hence methodism and the US' obsession with religion. Monday to Saturday 10.00-17.50pm, (Sunday 12.00). Free.
Tube: St Pauls (Central) Barbican (Circle)

Handel House Museum Now open at 25, Brook Street - 400 metres south of Bond Street tube. Marks Handel's career in London - strangely enough in a house next door to Jimi Hendrix's old pad. Not really worth the admission price unless you're obsessed with Handel - a few reconstructed rooms, a couple of portraits and such - you'd be far better off at the V & A or the Geffreye Museum.
Tube: Bond St (Central, Jubilee)

The Old operating Theatre and Herb Garrett The Old operating theatre for women was built for Guy's & Thomas' Hospital, before the railways devastated the site. It was effectively 'lost' for nearly a century before being rediscovered in the late fifties. It's been restored and is fascinating if you are interested in the history of medicine. There's also the Herb Garrett (who we sometimes tell people was a famous jazz trumpeter) which is an old apothecary's storeroom. It's a nice counterpart to Chelsea's Physic Garden or the Physic Garden at Kew. Florence Nightingale used to work here. It's built in the attic of an old Wren Church - which is waiting money for restoration. 9, St Thomas Street, SE1. Open 10:00-16:00.
Tube: London Bridge (Northern, Jubilee) Trains: from Charing Cross, Waterloo.

National Army Museum For all things military, including uniforms and weapons, this tells the history of Britain's Army, in places like Trafalgar and The Colonies, from the time of Henry VIII. Visit the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital next door - England's equivalent of Les Invalides in Paris (see our Historic section).
Tube: Sloane Square (Circle).

Transport Museum Again one for enthusiasts, though it also targets itself at children. The history of London's transport, which is, we suppose, a history of the World's urban transport as well. Admission fee fairly high considering the size, but the exhibts are crammed into the building. Great shop selling Underground branded goods which make perfect presents. In Covent Garden Piazza. Open 10.00-18.00 daily (11.00-18.00 Fridays). Free admission for children under 16, so you could dump the kids here and do some shopping...
Tube: Covent Garden(Piccadilly), Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo).

Minority Interest
Bank of England Museum - at the Bank of England, Bank Underground (of course) near the Royal Exchange and other city stuff. Free. Website

Petrie Museum of Egyptology - part of University College, London, Gower Street. A huge collection with some gems, but not laid out for the general visitor. Free. Website

Museum of Brands. - London's newest museum, re-located from Gloucester to trendy Notting Hill. Lots of vintage packaging and advertising. Opened with an exhibit linked to the BBC's excellent programme on Edwardian brands. Admission about 6 adult. Close to Portobello Road market. Website

Florence Nightingale Museum, in St Thomas's Hospital next to Westminster Bridge. Museum of Nursing with many of Florence's artifacts. Website

The Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. Haigiography of the man who 'discovered' penicillin, in the room where he discovered it.

Museum of Instruments at the Royal College of Music, next to the Albert Hall. Over 500 instruments spanning 600 years, though the Horniman's collection is better. Tube: South Kensington. Website

Wellcome Collection - the largest of its kind in the world, with good innovative exhibitions. Great collection of western and eastern manuscripts, on application. Website

 

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