10 Unusual Historical Museums to Visit in London | Historical Landmarks | History Hit

10 Unusual Historical Museums to Visit in London

From comic books to public surgeries: these weird and wonderful London museums take visitors on a tour through the strange, the niche and even the macabre.

Harry Sherrin

06 Nov 2021

London is undoubtedly home to some of the world’s most revered and celebrated museums, from the British Museum to the Imperial War Museum.

But the city also houses a whole range of stranger institutions. At the Ragged School Museum in Mile End, for example, visitors can uncover the history of teaching in the Victorian era. And in Balham’s Sewing Machine Museum, some 600 sewing machines are on display, painting a vivid picture of the device’s changing form and use through time.

From quirky toys to historical hand fans, here are 10 of London’s most odd and unusual museums.

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1. Old Operating Theatre Museum, Southwark

In the attic of St Thomas’ Church in Southwark, London, sits the oldest operating theatre in the city, dating back to 1822. It’s one of the Old Operating Theatre Museum’s key exhibits, and it attempts to transport visitors back to the gruesome days of 19th-century medicine.

Displays at the Old Operating Theatre Museum include barbaric surgical instruments, restraints for pinning patients to the operating table and even preserved human organs. It’s an uncompromising museum, housing everything from the grotesque to the bizarre, but an insightful one, artfully recreating the harsh reality of medicine in the Victorian era.

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2. Pollock’s Toy Museum, Fitzrovia

Pollock’s Toy Museum is a quirky little collection of historic toys, dolls and games, housed in a pair of central London townhouses. Among the artefacts on display are old board games, mechanical toys and curious puppets and figurines.

Among the rarest items at Pollock’s Toy Museum are an ancient Egyptian toy mouse dating back to c. 2000 BC and the world’s oldest teddy bear, Eric, which was made in 1904. The author Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote of the museum, “if you love art, folly or the bright eyes of children, speed to Pollock’s.”

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3. Grant Museum of Zoology, Bloomsbury

With displays of mammal skulls, preserved animals and even dissected heads, the Grant Museum of Zoology isn’t one for the squeamish. Perhaps the site’s most famed exhibit is a collection of 18 moles, fixed in a glass case of formaldehyde. The moles even have a dedicated Twitter account.

The Grant Museum of Zoology also boasts a collection of more than 1,000 rare stuffed animal species, including a Tasmanian tiger and even a quagga, which is an extinct mammal related to the zebra.

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4. Clink Prison Museum, Southwark

The Clink Museum is housed in a former Southwark prison dating back to 1144. Much of the prison was rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries, when it earned the name ‘Clink’. Housed in the Bankside area, once a notorious red-light district, the Clink has no doubt seen more than its fair share of violence, scandal and criminality.

Visitors to the Clink Prison Museum can expect to be taken on a journey through the history of prison life in England. Exhibits include gruesome torture and restraining devices used by prison workers, weapons crafted by inmates and vivid recreations of life at the Clink.

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5. The Cartoon Museum, Fitrovia

London’s Cartoon Museum boasts a comprehensive collection of comic books, original artworks and related memorabilia. Their exhibits include more than 8,000 books and 6,000 pieces of art, with fan favourites such as Billy Whizz and Dennis the Menace on display.

The Cartoon Museum’s collections span several centuries of cartoon creation, from the 1700s through to the golden age of cartoons and comic books in the 20th century.

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6. Magic Circle Museum, Euston

The Magic Circle is a renowned – and characteristically mysterious – society for magicians. And now, interested parties can dive into the history of the secretive organisation at London’s Magic Circle Museum.

Among the institution’s collections are a pair of handcuffs used by famed escape artist Harry Houdini and an iconic fez worn by British comedian and magician Tommy Cooper. Be sure to book ahead, though: tours are by appointment only.

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7. Sewing Machine Museum, Balham

The London Sewing Machine Museum offers a comprehensive overview of the history of sewing and haberdashery. Among the artefacts on display are a device purchased by Queen Victoria, the first-ever Singer sewing machine and a device sent to London from the US for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

In total, the museum holds over 600 historic sewing machines. The site is open on the first Saturday of each month.

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8. Ragged School Museum, Mile End

Visitors to the Ragged School Museum in London’s East End can discover the fascinating history of 19th-century British education and beyond. The site allows guests to explore a reconstructed Victorian classroom and pore over hundreds of educational artefacts.

Among the exhibits on display at the Ragged School Museum are chalkboards, desks and ink bottles, all of which paint a vivid picture of historic learning establishments. On certain dates of the year, the museum hosts ‘open house’ sessions, where actors and guides don historic garbs and host interactive lessons and exhibits.

A recent study published in the science journal Nature tracked the emotional tone of books and newspapers over the past 200 years and suggested that the British were happier in the 19th century. We got Hannah Woods on the pod pronto to talk us through the reality of life in the 19th century.

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Image Credit: Museum of Brands / CC BY-SA 4.0

9. The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, Notting Hill

The Notting Hill Museum of Brands is a sort of shrine to logos, packaging and material goods from throughout history. The museum houses items from the Victorian era right through to the present day, taking visitors on a nostalgic journey through the history of advertising in Britain and beyond.

The Museum of Brands benefits from the vast Robert Opie Collection of some 12,000 artefacts, and as such its exhibits are comprehensive and wide-ranging. Among the objects on display are OXO cubes dating back to World War One, KitKat bars from the time of the Great Depression and various early Coca-Cola bottles.

Image Credit: The Fan Museum

10. Fan Museum, Greenwich

Opened in 1991 in the Greenwich World Heritage Site, The Fan Museum is the world’s first museum dedicated to the history of hand fans. With over 5,000 fans on display – the oldest dating back to the 11th century – the museum’s extensive collection is fascinating.

A ‘secret’ Japanese garden can also be viewed from the museum’s stunning orangery tea room, and visitors can also take a stroll around the beautifully restored Grade II-listed buildings within which the museum sits.