I think it’s fair to say that tourists and locals are equally guilty of succumbing to the draw of the big museums in Central London. I freely admit to having found myself in both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in the last week or two.
London has a lot more to offer than these, albeit grand, Victorian edifices – all over town there are fascinating museums with unique perspectives on our history and culture. Here are five that I’ve visited in the last year that are really worth considering if you want to experience something a little bit different:
William Morris Gallery – Walthamstow
Reopened in August of this year after a long closure for refurbishment, the William Morris Gallery can now lay claim to being the pre-eminent location for those with an interest in this remarkable artist. The beautifully redesigned spaces exhibit fine examples of his artwork, furniture, wallpaper and stained glass and there’s even a room dedicated to the output of Kelmscott Press, the publishing company that he established which is famous for its reprinting of Icelandic sagas. The William Morris Gallery also showcases the work of some of his contemporaries – it’s Arts and Crafts heaven!
Horniman Museum – Forest Hill
Showing off the Arts and Crafts movement in its architectural form, the Horniman Museum on Forest Hill is one of London’s most beautiful buildings. It contains what is very likely to be the largest collection of taxidermy in the world and also has a world-class collection of fossil remains on display – more contemporary exhibits focus on the artistic output of Africa and on the history of musical instruments. The Horniman Museum is also surrounded by fine gardens that feature modern sculpture. It’s one of the unsung treasures of South London.
Dedicated to the history of one of London’s most important communities, the Jewish Museum just off the main road in Camden Town hides a myriad of fascinating displays behind its deceptively small facade. A visit will furnish you with a potted history of London’s Jewish immigrants and all you could possibly want to know about Jewish tradition and culture – it goes without saying that the section which deals with the Holocaust is one of the most moving and thought-provoking galleries in London.
Cinema Museum – Elephant & Castle
Run by Ronald and Martin, the Cinema Museum occupies old hospital buildings near Elephant and Castle. Dedicated to the rise and fall and rise of British cinema (both in terms of its architecture and its output) this is an aladdin’s cave of moving picture treasures. The building boasts a little cinema of its own, runs regular events and holds massive archives on all aspects of the craft of movie-making. Note that an appointment is necessary in order to visit.
Unusually, the Ragged School Museum is directly tied to its subject – the building housed a school for the poor (hence a ‘ragged school) until the early 1900s. Popular with children, the museum explains what school life was like for local East End kids in the Victorian era – on the first floor there’s an authentic Victorian classroom that actually hosts lessons. I understand that there’s no corporal punishment allowed these days, but there is a dunce’s cap in the corner of the room under a portrait of a particularly stern Queen Victoria, destined for the head of the naughtiest child in class…