10 Best Small Museums in London
Exploring England, Scotland, and Wales
London is blessed with some of the best large museums in the world, places like the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum attract visitors from around the world - and rightly so.
But London is also home to a staggering number of exceptional small museums, places that don't get the recognition they deserve and are sadly overlooked by most visitors to London. Occasionally small museums might be overlooked because they're a bit too far off the beaten track, but usually its because visitors are simply unaware of them.
Let's rectify that!
Here is our list of the best small museums in London. We have personally visited all of these small museums, usually as a family, and can recommend them as the 'best of the best' small museums in central London. Let's count down the list from number 10 to number 1.
Explore the life of a Victorian child in this wonderfully eccentric museum on the fringes of Bloomsbury. Pollocks Toy Museum is a nostalgic trip into the world of 19th-century toy theatres, one of the most popular children's pasties during the Victorian period. Before the days of television and the cinema, children used these model theatres to put on stage shows, complete with scenery backdrops, props and figures of actors.
The museum takes its name from Benjamin Pollock, a famous manufacturer of toy theatres, whose shop stood in Covent Garden.
The Toy Museum boasts an extraordinary collection of toy theatres, puppets, and stages occupying a pair of historic townhouses, one dating to the 18th century.
There is much more to Pollocks than 'just' toy theatres; the museum is home to a remarkable collection of toys from around the world, from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian clay mouse to modern action figures. See teddy bears, toy trains, dollhouses, and toy vehicles of all descriptions. See 19th-century magic lanterns, kaleidoscopes, and early examples of stereoscopic viewers.
There are board games, tin toys, rag dolls, wooden dolls, china dolls, even dolls made of celluloid. And of course, dolls need somewhere to live so there are dollhouses dating to the middle of the 19th century and depicting everything from a French chateau to a classical villa.
Pollocks Toy Museum is a place to lose yourself for hours.
Nearest Underground Station: Goodge Street
Explore the history of the venerable 'Old Lady of Threadneedle Street' in this fascinating museum that traces the origins of the Bank of England. The Bank's original charter, issued in 1694, is on display, as is a wonderful collection of early banknotes - both real and forgeries. The most extraordinary banknote on display is a one million pound note from the early 19th century, used for internal accounting purposes.
Learn how famous people were linked to the establishment of the Bank of England. For example, the composer George Frederick Handel had two accounts and invested in the South Sea Company (luckily he sold his shares before the Company collapsed). Then there are several documents connected to George Washington, the first President of the United States.
Did you know that the British government raised money by issuing its own lottery tickets? The Bank of England acted as the official lottery registrar. See lottery tickets dated as far back as 1769, signed by the Bank's Chief Cashier.
Since the Bank of England held large sums of money, it needed to be protected. See weapons used to defend bank premises, and an iron chest made in 1700 with a complex locking mechanism and heavy ironwork frame.
Then there is the story of the workman who discovered that a public sewer led directly into the Bank's supposedly secure vaults. Rather than use his 'inside knowledge' to rob the Bank he reported his discovery to the authorities. The embarrassed Bank gave him a reward for his honesty.
Nearest Underground Station: Farringdon
This wonderful little museum is attached to St Thomas Hospital, where the 'Lady with the Lamp' founded her School of Nursing in 1860. Though Nightingale is remembered primarily for her role in nursing wounded soldiers during the Crimean War it was actually her efforts after the war ended that helped transform the field of nursing and change public attitudes towards hospital treatment.
Her meticulous record-keeping proved to Parliament that more soldiers died from disease than battle wounds, and helped pave the way for the introduction of modern nursing care.
The museum traces Nightingale's life from her family upbringing to her training in nursing, her experiences in Crimea, her battle with military and political bureaucracy, and her profound effect on the development of nursing and health care.
There are a wealth of personal items on display, from the stuffed owl that went with her everywhere to over 1,000 personal hand-written letters. Other personal objects include a small gold and gemstone cross that Florence wore on a chain, and the beautifully-made medicine chest that Florence took to the Crimean War.
One fascinating section of the museum holds a collection of WWI oil paintings by the French artist Victor Tardieu, showing life in a field hospital, but the best painting on display is a copy of the famous 1856 painting, 'The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari', by Jerry Barrett. Nightingale refused to pose for the painting as she worried that focussing too much attention on her role would antagonise the military medical establishment that she had to work with.
Nearest Underground Station: Waterloo or Westminster
The redundant 13th-century church of St Mary at Lambeth stands beside Lambeth Palace, the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The church is now the home of the Garden Museum, covering the history of gardening in Britain.
Learn about the influence of famous gardeners such as John Tradescant (1570-1638) whose grave is in the churchyard. Tradescant and his son John (also buried here) worked as gardeners to King Charles I and travelled the globe gathering rare and unusual plants. They invited the public to view their botanic gardens in Lambeth and to see their 'cabinet of curiosities'; perhaps the first public museum in Britain.
Also in the graveyard is the tomb of William Bligh, the Captain of the HMS Bounty. Set into the floor of the church is the grave slab of Elias Ashmole, who founded the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Ashmole was a close friend of the Tradescants and their cabinet of curiosities formed part of the original Ashmolean Museum collection.
The museum has a wonderful exhibit tracing the influence of famous gardeners on British history and culture. Among the items on display is one of Humphry Repton's 'Red Books, an illustrated volume presented to clients to show how Repton's designs would look. Learn about gardeners like William Robinson and see a first edition of his enormously influential book 'The English Flower Garden'.
There are displays of historical garden tools - and some very unusual ones like a cucumber straightener invented by George Stephenson, the railway entrepreneur.
And when you've done exploring the history of English gardens and gardeners you can climb to the top of the church's medieval tower for exceptional views across the River Thames and over the rooftops of Lambeth Palace.
Nearest Underground Station: Lambeth North or Westminster
Several of these small museums cover the lives of real people; this wonderful little museum covers the career of one of Britain's most beloved fictional characters, the detective Sherlock Holmes. And could there be a better location? The museum occupies 221b Baker Street, the very same address used by the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for Holmes and Watson's lodging house.
It this the most famous address in the world, as the museum website claims?
And what an atmospheric place it is! Fronting onto Baker Street is a Victorian-era study, recreating the atmosphere that Holmes and Watson would have enjoyed, and beside it is a bedroom exhibited as if Holmes was in residence. Watson's bedroom is on the second floor, while Mrs Hudson's room is at the back of the house. On the third floor is an exhibition showing wax models of scenes from the Holmes stories.
Every room is recreated in loving detail, with authentic Victorian items such as daily newspapers open on the table, books stacked on tables, a deerstalker hat thrown carelessly aside, a coal-scuttle on the hearth, and Dr Watson's diary open to a page of notes for the Hound of the Baskervilles tale.
If, like me, you grew up following the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you will need no second invitation to explore this wonderful small museum.
Nearest Underground Station: Baker Street
In 1938 the Austrian pioneer of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud fled his Nazi-occupied homeland and settled in the London suburb of Hampstead. For the rest of his life, he lived at a modest house at 20 Maresfield Gardens, where he set up his practice and wrote the book Moses and Monotheism. His daughter Anna Freud lived on at Maresfield Gardens until her death in 1982, and according to her wishes, the house was turned into a museum after her death.
The house holds Freud's collections of antiquities from different cultures, and personal items related to his psychoanalysis work. You can see the couch where Freud's patients relaxed during sessions - the same couch he used in Vienna where he came up with the concept of using 'free association in his sessions with patients.
But the Freud Museum is about much more than Sigmund Freud the psychoanalyst, it is about Freud the person, and the life he shared here with his family. See traditional Austrian furniture, collections of classical Greek and Roman items, and portraits of Freud by friends such as Salvador Dali.
See artwork by Sergei Konstantinovitch Pankejeff, one of Freud's most famous patients, known as 'The Wolf Man' for his recurring dreams of wolves.
The house also has displays on the life and work of Anna Freud, who followed in her father's footsteps and became a well-known figure in the field of psychoanalysis.
Behind the house is the family garden, maintained as Sigmund Freud would have known it.
Nearest Underground Station: Finchley Road
In leafy Brunswick Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury, stands a red-brick townhouse at once served as London headquarters of the Foundling Hospital. Outside this elegant house is a statue of Thomas Coram, who in 1739 founded a charitable hospital to care for the thousands of children who were abandoned each year in London.
The Foundling Hospital operated for over 200 years and looked after over 25,000 children. The museum tells the story of these children through a wonderful collection of prints, sculpture, paintings, manuscripts, clocks, and furniture with ties to the Hospital.
The Foundling Hospital kept detailed records of every child, so the museum can trace the tales of their lives in minute detail.
But there is much more to the museum than just the story of the foundlings; it also houses an extraordinary collection relating to the life and works of the composer George Frederick Handel who was one of the original Governors of the Foundling Hospital.
Handel played an annual benefit concert in aid of the Hospital and even composed an anthem known as the Foundling Hospital Hymn. The Handel collection includes original scores, printed music and books, coins, manuscripts, and artwork. The most important exhibit is Handel's will.
From an artist in music to an artist in drawing, the Foundling Museum also boasts a fascinating display on the popular engraver William Hogarth, who was a strident supporter of Thomas Coram's efforts. You can see original sketches Hogarth made for the Foundling Hospital's coat of arms, and 'The March of the Guards to Finchley', painted in 1757. The painting was offered to King George II, who refused it. Hogarth then sold raffle tickets with the painting as the prize. He gave 170 tickets to the Hospital, and the Hospital won the prize draw.
Nearest Underground Station: Russell Square
An unobtrusive terraced house in Camden Town houses one of the finest museums in London. The Jewish Museum covers the story of Jewish life, history, culture, and religion in Britain. It is not aimed specifically at Jewish people but at people of every faith or none.
The museum covers the daily life of Jews in Britain from the medieval period to the present day. On the ground floor is a reassembled 13th-century mikveh, a traditional plunge bath used for ritual cleansing. The mikveh was discovered in the cellar of a house in the City of London and carefully moved to the museum for display.
The Living Faith gallery focusses on Jewish religious life with a wonderful exhibit of historical objects dating back to the medieval period. One of the highlights is the Lindo Lamp, a silver Hanukkah lamp made in 1709. Another highlight is a beautifully carved 17th-century synagogue Ark from Italy, discovered at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland.
Another gallery looks at Jewish Heritage in Britain, from the arrival of Jews in Britain shortly after the Norman Conquest to their expulsion from these shores by Edward III. This gallery has a wonderful collection of items from everyday life, from music hall posters to a 1920 copy of The Jewish Chronicle. See uniforms and medals from Jews who served in the British army, and utensils used by Jewish bakers in London's East End.
A separate gallery looks at the Jewish experience of the Holocaust in WWII and follows the incredible tale of a British Jew named Leon Greenman, who survived 8 concentration camps before being freed at the end of the war.
The Jewish Museum is thought-provoking, insightful, and endlessly fascinating. Highly recommended.
Nearest Underground Station: Camden Town
In 1822 St Thomas Hospital in Southwark built the first purpose-built medical operating theatre in Europe under the eaves of St Thomas Church, which stood directly beside the Hospital. When the Hospital moved in 1862 the operating theatre was boarded up and forgotten for almost 100 years. The theatre was rediscovered, restored and opened to the public in 1962.
There were originally two operating theatres, one for men and one for women. Only the women's theatre has survived. Amputations were often performed here, sometimes without anaesthetics. The floor of the theatre was covered with sawdust to soak up the blood. As you can imagine, mortality rates were high.
Linked to the operating theatre was a herb garret, where medical herbs were prepared and stored by an apothecary whose shop stood further along St Thomas Street. The garret is now stocked with plants commonly used for medical purposes in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The museum is exceptional; it is an Alladin's Cave of medical history, with a fascinating display of historical medical instruments and traditional medicines. Visiting is also a very sobering experience; to see how patients were treated - and often died - will make you appreciate the medical advances we live with today.
Nearest Underground Station: London Bridge
In my humble opinion, the Geffrye Museum is one of the finest museums in the UK, let alone London. Yet how many Londoners are aware of it?
The Geffrye Museum focusses on the furniture, art, and domestic interiors of the urban middle classes. If that description sounds unexciting, let me re-phrase it and say that the museum displays authentic period rooms ranging from 1600 to the present day and is housed in a beautiful range of Georgian almshouses once owned by the Ironmongers Guild. The almshouses were built by Sir Robert Geffrye (1613–1703), who served as Master of the Ironmongers Guild and Lord Mayor of London.
The museum follows the development of domestic interiors in England through a series of rooms, each decorated to represent a different time period. You can explore parts of the original almshouses and enjoy the 18th-century walled garden. The garden, like the almshouses, are divided into separate 'rooms', each representing a different time period.
The museum rooms are full of objects that illustrate English domestic life and homes through the eyes of the 'middling classes'. From wallpaper to home lighting, pets to furniture, the Geffrye Museum covers every aspect of domestic life in Britain in amazing detail. Learn how ideas of male and female roles changed over time and listen to audio recordings of historical writing by contemporaries, describing each period.
At the centre of the museum is the original almshouse chapel with a memorial to Sir Robert Geffrye, who is buried in the gardens.
Nearest Underground Station: Liverpool Street (1 mile) or Hoxton overground
Drawing up this 10 Best list was very difficult, and several of my favourite museums just missed the cut. Heading the 'best of the rest' is the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street, where the Victorian novelist lived from 1837-1839. It was here that Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist. The museum is home to the largest collection of Dickens memorabilia in the world.
Tucked away on a side street near Kings Cross Station is the London Canal Museum, housed in a restored Victorian warehouse. Here you can learn the fascinating tale of London's waterways, canal boats, the ice trade, and ... ice cream! The connection of canals to ice cream might not be instantly apparent, but the warehouse that houses the museum was built for in 1857 for Carlo Gatti, the man who more than any other, made ice cream popular around the world. In a deep chamber below the warehouse, known as an ice well, Gatti stored blocks of ice brought from Norway.
From ice cream to architecture, the Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincolns Inn Fields was the home of the Regency architect and antiquarian Sir John Soane. Over the course of his career, Soane amassed a remarkable collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, over 6,000 books, 252 architectural models and over 30,000 architectural drawings. The result is astonishing. Walking into the museum area is a jaw-dropping experience. Classical Greek statues share space with Egyptian columns and the magnificently carved alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I. Don't miss this museum!
And there you have it, the 10 best small museums in London (plus a few alternates). Now it's up to you; get out there and start exploring!