Six of London’s best small museums and why you should visit them now

Beyond the capital's famous museums are over 100 smaller cultural institutions, many at threat of closing due to the impact of coronavirus. From the Garden Museum to Pitzhanger Manor, here are six hidden gems to discover now.

By Maxwell Blowfield
Published 5 Sept 2020, 08:00 BST
The Garden Museum at night. This small museum is a real treat for green-fingered horticulturalists and amateur ...

The Garden Museum at night. This small museum is a real treat for green-fingered horticulturalists and amateur gardeners alike.

Photograph by Hamish Irvine Photography

For museum-lovers, London is hard to beat. Some of the world’s best museums are here, and no other city boasts as many entries in the world’s top 10 most-visited. Tate Modern, the National Gallery, the British Museum and Natural History Museum are ranked among the most popular on the planet. But London’s reputation as a museum capital is not just because of the big names. Crammed into all corners of the city are well over 100 small museums that bring millions of art, culture and history fans flocking to explore them each year. That is, until 2020 — the year the global pandemic arrived.

International visitors have all but dried up, and the hesitancy of domestic visitors to visit museums is reflected in largely lacklustre booking figures. For London’s small museums, which nearly all rely on admission fees, shops and cafes for their income, this has dealt them a financial blow. Many are facing a fight for survival.

So, as they begin to reopen after lockdown (employing resourceful social distancing and safety measures), now's the time to start ticking them off. Small museums can be fun and fascinating, and visiting now will provide a much-needed financial lifeline to these important institutions in these precarious times, helping to ensure London’s rich museum scene continues to thrive. Here are six of the best to get started with.

1. The Garden Museum

A calm oasis away from the hustle and bustle of city life, the Garden Museum is a real treat for horticulturalists and amateur gardeners alike. Housed in a converted medieval church in Lambeth with a sleek modern extension, the museum celebrates all there is to love about British gardens through historical objects, art and temporary exhibitions. After exploring the displays, visitors should enjoy the inner courtyard of exotic plants. There are even two Victorian mausoleums hiding among the foliage. £10 admission; free for children under six. Concessions and family tickets available.

Housed in a converted medieval church and a sleek modern extension, The Garden Museum celebrates all there is to love about British gardens. 

Photograph by The Garden Museum

The Regency country manor in which this west London museum is set would be worth a visit in its own right, but this is no ordinary house. It was built by one of Britain’s most visionary architects, Sir John Soane, as a rural retreat when Ealing was just a village. It was the ‘laboratory’ where he put all of his most innovative ideas into practice, and today it’s open to visitors after a major restoration. It’s a pure joy to explore, a magnificent temple to the tastes of the early 19th century. Plus, a new gallery for contemporary art alongside just adds to the draw. £7.70 admission; free for under-18s.

3. Charles Dickens Museum

Literary history was made in this five-storey townhouse in Holborn. It was here that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, turning the author into an international superstar by the time he moved out in 1839. To visit now is to step back in time to early Victorian London, as the museum is presented as Dickens and his young family lived in it. You can nose around everything from the study where he penned these iconic novels, to the wine cellar and servants' washhouse. £9 admission; free for children under six. Concessions and children's tickets available.

The Florence Nightingale Museum explores the life and pioneering career of the Lady with the Lamp. 2020 has been designated the Year of the Nurse and Midwife in honour of her bicentenary year, and a new exhibition, Nightingale in 200 Objects, People & Places, is open now. 

Photograph by Florence Nightingale Museum

Easily missed in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital, on the south side of Westminster Bridge, this small museum is the very definition of a hidden gem. Once located, visitors explore the life and pioneering career of the Lady with the Lamp (said lamp from the Crimean War is one of the highlight objects). New for 2020 is an immersive display looking at her legacy in the bicentenary of her birth. It would be a tragic irony if the museum celebrating the founder of modern nursing falls victim to the current health crisis. £9 admission; children's tickets, concessions and students' fares available.

5. Museum of London Docklands

Often overshadowed by its larger sister museum in the Square Mile, the Museum of London Docklands punches well above its weight. Fascinating displays on the history of London as a port city are fused with full-sized replicas of a 19th-century ramshackle riverside district. (Not many museums allow you to sit in a sailor’s tavern!) It’s one of London’s most family-friendly museums, but there is plenty here for all ages. Entry is free, so donations will be welcome. Free admission.

A major new exhibition opens at the Museum of London Docklands on Friday 11 September, entitled Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery. Entry is free but timed slots must be booked in advance.

Photograph by David Parry

This tiny museum is a celebration of an engineering feat briefly regarded as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The Thames Tunnel, designed by Marc Isambard Brunel, was the world’s very first underwater tunnel, opening in 1843. The turbulent story of the project is explored, but the real treat is a visit to the Grand Entrance Hall. Recently reborn as a performance venue deep beneath London, this cavernous space is half the size of Shakespeare’s Globe. Descend to the bottom to be just inches from the hurtling trains now using the Tunnel. £6 admission; free for children under five. Concessions and family tickets available.

Maxwell Blowfield is a freelance museum writer, content creator and expert, and has worked in museum communications for a decade. His email newsletter, Maxwell Museums, covers the best of the world museums with news, reviews and interviews. 

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