London is a city of possibilities – it's never the same way twice. And just like it caters to a traveller's every whim, so does its network of museums. Flagship institutions like the National Gallery and the Tate contain treasures that are required viewing for first-time tourists, but with over 200 museums in London, these represent only the tip of the cultural iceberg. For repeat visitors and creative travellers, there are alternatives – smaller, more unique museums with versions of history you won't find anywhere else.
Take The Bramah's Museum of Tea and Coffee. It is one of several attractions that uncovers the past through highly specialized collections. Located in what was once a bustling site for coffee and tea shipments arriving from abroad, this museum uses teapots and percolators to examine the dramatic history of these ubiquitous beverages – from coffee's Arab pioneers to how tea came to replace opium during the imperialist era.
London is the land of trends, and museums are certainly no exception. Recreations are sweeping the city, allowing visitors to relive slices of history. The spanking new Foundling Museum recreates the legendary 18th-century Foundling Hospital, which, over the years, cared for more than 27,000 orphaned children. The adjacent gallery presents the artwork of past benefactors, including the hospital's former governors: artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel.
For war history buffs, there's Winston Churchill's Britain at War Experience, an ongoing exhibition near London Bridge that recreates in realistic detail the dark days of Hitler's bombing campaign against London. Of course, if you're looking for more authenticity, you can always visit the actual Cabinet War Rooms – the vigilantly preserved underground headquarters where the British High Command met in secret in the early 1940s.
The gothic side of history is rich in London – and has largely fallen under the purview of its minor museums. For fans of the truly grisly, there are several spooky options:
- The Clink Prison Museum: Penal history is brought to life through instruments of torture and a special “adults only” room.
- The London Dungeon: Retells the grim but true stories of death and disaster in Europe's past, from the guillotine to the Great Fire of London.
- The Garret: Sit inside London's first operating theatre and learn how doctors performed amputations and other surgical procedures in the days before anesthetics.
- The Cuming Museum: Includes a detailed examination of London's prominent legends, superstitions and local myths.
So why settle for the mainstream when you can find a museum to suit your taste – however eccentric?
(Former Londoner Matthew Fox is an editor at Maisonneuve and the author of Cities of Weather.)
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|WOMAN WITH CAMERA: A. PEACOCK / CREATAS
FOUNDLING MUSEUM: PETER COOK