Our guide to the best small museums in London was written in May 2019.
London’s large scale museums offer the visitor a feast of riches. As is commonly the case with feasts, however, if you don’t pace yourself, you can easily end up feeling bloated, caught up in the headlong rush to consume as much as possible.
If you occasionally yearn for something smaller and more digestible, help is at hand. The capital has a vast array of top quality small museums, covering a dazzling range of subjects and interests. There is a cartoon museum, a museum dedicated to the history of magic, a toy museum and a museum which traces the history of brands and advertising.
While these venues may lack the sophistication and grandeur of the bigger museums, they more than make up for it in beauty and quirky charm. So, to give you an idea of what’s on offer, here’s City Countdown’s guide to the best small museums in London.
1.John Soane’s Museum
It is hardly surprising that this house museum based in Bloomsbury is architecturally perfect, given that it was home of the eminent architecture Sir John Soane while he was still alive. What is surprising, however, is just how much of an emotional punch the place still packs. Wandering into John Soane’s museum is like wandering into the home of an old friend who has left the front door unlocked. It is as if the great man is still with us, so large is his imprint on everything we see.
It’s the way Soane would have wanted it, too. At the time of his death, estranged from his family, the architect decided to leave his home to the nation. There was one condition, however: everything was to be preserved exactly how Soane had left it on the day he died.
If the museum itself is amazing, the collection is something else again. If you are in any doubt of that – the sarcophagus in the basement and the Horgaths in a ground floor room should dispel any doubt.
For the full effect check out the museum’s regular candlelit evening sessions. Just perfect. It all adds up to one of the very best small museums in London.
2. The Museum of Brands
It is difficult to comprehend, when you are walking through the huge collection of exhibits at the Museum of Brands, that the institution is the work of one man. It is, however – collector extraordinaire Robert Opie – and he has given London a quite remarkable museum.
The collection concerns itself with the history of advertising and packaging, with 12,000 exhibits helping to tell the story of some of the nation’s best loved brands, from the Victorian period to the present day. Everyone who visits the museum is guaranteed to recognise something, and half the fun is spotting your childhood favourites. Be warned though – the museum can be powerfully nostalgic. Best to bring the tissues.
3.The Wallace Collection
Tucked away on an elegant square, minutes away from Oxford Street, is the magnificent Wallace Collection. The work of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, Richard Wallace, the collection comprises paintings, sculpture, furniture, porcelain and armour.
Just as breathtaking as the collection itself however, is magnificent Hertford House, the estate in which the collection resides. The house was built in the 18th century for the Wallace family, descendants of Henry VIII’s wife, Jane Seymour.
Sir Richard’s widow, Lady Wallace, bequeathed the collection to the nation in 1897 and the Wallace Collection has been administered by a non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport since then.
Much larger than the other museums and historic houses in our guide, Hertford House is a treasure trove of beautiful things, and a great place to wander, before or after a trip to the shops.
Highlights of the museum are the magnificent entrance hall staircase, the exquisite Avignon Clock, and the stunning Secretaire desk in the Study.
4.Denis Severs House
This magnificent Georgian townhouse plays home to one of London’s most quirky and unique museums. Dennis Severs’ House (Severs’ couldn’t tolerate the term museum) tells the story of a fictitious Huguenot silk-weavering family.
What is really unique about the place however, is the way Severs has created the impression of a lived in space, using music, conversation and even smell to evoke the period. If it is perhaps surprisingly still one of the capital’s best kept secrets. it is also very definitely one of the very best small museums in London.
5. Keats House
It’s not hard to imagine writing great poetry, if you lived somewhere as stunning as Keats House. The building sits on one of those perfect, leafy little lanes, the type that Hampstead does in its sleep. Pretty trees are dotted all around, and there is stunning architecture at every turn.
The house is handsome too. A lovely white washed regency villa, the place has an air of sleepy seclusion, just perfect for the artistic temperament. However, it’s the collection that really inspires, that and the thrill of finding tiny fragments of Keats’ ultimately tragic life, scattered throughout the building. It’s not all doom and gloom however, as Keats House is the setting for the poet’s one great romance, with his pretty next door neighbour, Fanny Brawne.
The museum does a good job of conveying a sense of the couple’s awakening passion. We see the tree under which the poet wrote Ode to a Nightingale and the bedroom in which the two shared tender moments. It’s all very lovely and completely engrossing.
Where: 10 Keats Grove, Hampstead NW3 2RR
6. The Clink
The Clink is certainly not for the faint hearted. If any further notice of the fact were needed – there is a decomposing skeleton hanging in a cage outside, to dispel all lingering doubts. It is a gory advertisement for the “attractions” within, and one that frequently draws horrified gasps from visitors to the area.
The museum tells the story of the legendary prison – the prison that gave its name to all others. The Clink was not a place for the living however, but a place for those awaiting (and often praying for) death. Death was certainly a preferable option to some of the gruesome punishments that the guards often doled out.
The museum recounts this dark period in its history with a series of gruesome displays, with a particularly gruesome section on torture. It’s spine chilling stuff, but fascinating too.
7. The Foundling Museum
Undoubtedly one of the best small museums in London, the foundling Museum tells an important story. It’s a tale of poverty and hardship and the one man who stood up to do something about it. That man was Thomas Coram and the Foundling Museum tells the story of the hospital Coram set up. The Foundling Hospital began life in Bloomsbury with the aim of offering refuge and care to those poor unfortunate children who had been abandoned by their parents (foundlings).
The museum is housed in a quite magnificent building in Tavistock Square, and the exhibits are fascinating, if occasionally a little heart breaking. Particularly hard to bear is the collection of tokens left by the parents of the abandoned children. These were not gifts, but identifiers. They were left in the hope that they might one day be used to identify the child and if the parent should ever wish to reclaim them. Some tokens were coins or jewellery, however many were just scraps of material (often, the material that the baby was first wrapped in).
8. Charles Dickens House
On a quite, unprepossessing street in Bloomsbury sits this lovely little love museum, which was home to Britain’s favourite Victorian writer from 1837 to 1839. Those years produced a fantastic spate of activity in Dickens’s writing career, with Oliver Twist, the Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickeleby all completed in that time.
The museum in Doughty Street gives visitors a fascinating insight into the life of the legendary writer, with Dickens’ study, bedchambers and servants quarters all open to the public. Even more fascinating is the opportunity to see the writer’s desk, handwritten drafts from some of his novels and his wife Catherine’s engagement ring.
9. Pollock Toy Museum
The Pollock Toy Museum is delightfully disordered, but herein lies its charm. It’s a perfect antidote to the sterile, big budget and commercially driven museums of the 21st century. The collection has been in the same family since the fifties and you can just sense the passion and pride that keeps the place going.
The building, two Victorian houses, on a predominantly Georgian street, has a wonderfully unspoilt sense of character, and the toys, sprouting organically from a series of antiquated display cases, are all perfectly preserved. In the end, the museum doesn’t just describe a magical yet bygone era, it embodies it. Just wonderful.
Where: 1 Scala Street, London W1T 2HL
Read City Countdown’s review of Pollock’s Toy Museum here.
More information about the museum can be found here.
10. Leighton House – the best small museums in London
No list of the best small museums in London would be complete without this gem. This stunning artist’s studio, the former home of Victorian painter Frederic, Lord Leighton, is a complete delight. A testament to the unique artistic style and vision of the Royal Academician, Leighton House is a breathtakingly beautiful space, full of wonders like the Arab Hall, with its colourful mosaics and Islamic tiles, and Leighton’s studio itself, where the artist composed some of his best known works.
Well, we hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to the best small museums in London. This is only a small section of the wealth of museum riches that the capital possesses. So, if you would like to discover more great museums in the city, please click here.