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London 2013: Lesser-Known Museums

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Circumvent the mainstream and head to one of London's hidden gems, says Peter Watts

Anaesthetics, canals, fans, sewing machines and magic - London's collection of small museums devoted to the weird and wonderful is unrivalled by any city in the world. London has a museum for just about anything, and while some of these museums are only open at weekends and others by appointment only, many are open all year round and offer more interesting, thoughtful, cheaper and calmer exhibitions than the 'blockbusters' beloved by the capital's bigger institutions.

While some of these establishments are run by amateur enthusiasts - like the marvellous Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, which exhibits old tins, packets and boxes from the private collection of Robert Opie - others are run by academic institutions, like University College London's Petrie Museum, where there is a fine collection of Egyptian artefacts, and Grant Museum of Zoology (main picture), home to real curiosities from the natural world, including a jar full of moles.

The Wellcome Collection on the Euston RoadOne of London's best small museums is also the best funded. The Wellcome Collection on the Euston Road (right) is a stylish modern space devoted to science and the arts. It forms a key part of the Wellcome Trust, one of the largest charitable funds in the world. In 2013, the Wellcome Collection's galleries will be refurbished but they will still hold regular exhibitions and events, including a huge display of 700 pieces of Japanese Outsider Art, featuring art made by patients at a number of Japanese mental health institutions.

Very different in nature is the sprawling Sir John Soane's Museum, located in a huge old house in Lincoln's Inn Fields that was once the home of the architect Sir John Soane and is still filled with his extraordinary collection of treasures, many of which relate to architecture (Soane designed the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery). This spring, the museum will be exhibiting architectural drawings of Paestum, a Graeco-Roman city in Italy, that were made by Giovanni Piranesi, the 18th-century Italian artist.

By contrast, architecture buffs should also visit 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, where 'This Must Be The Place' explores architect Ernö Goldfinger's utopian blueprint for the modern home. Goldfinger was a Hungarian architect who worked in the UK after the Second World War, and the exhibition takes place at the modernist house he designed for himself.

If you prefer engineers to architects, check out the remarkable Brunel Museum in Rotherhithe, which celebrates the achievements of the father-and-son engineers Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It is located above their Thames Tunnel, which was built beneath the Thames between 1825 and 1843. The Brunel Museum hosts a number of events throughout the year, including regular opportunities to descend into the tunnel (which now forms part of the underground network). The Brunel Museum will also be celebrating the 160th anniversary of the tunnel opening in 2013.

There are several other anniversaries to note in 2013. It is, for instance, the bicentenary of the glorious Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, a curious collection of medical specimens which has been based in Lincoln's Inn Fields since 1813. There will be a special exhibition to highlight the origins of the college, some of the key figures and events in its history and also look at the future of the college through the research funding and training that it provides for modern surgeons.


The Brunel Museum explores the Thames Tunnel; the British Optical Association Museum at Charing Cross; the Fan Museum in Greenwich

This year also marks 75 years since the launch of HMS Belfast, the war boat museum on the Thames at London Bridge, and the 250th anniversary of Dr Samuel Johnson meeting James Boswell, for which there will be celebratory events at Dr Johnson's House, where Johnson wrote the world's first dictionary, in the City of London. The end of the year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Clockmakers' Museum collection, the oldest collection of clocks and watches in the world, which is based in Guildhall. A similar specialist is the British Optical Association Museum in Charing Cross. Run by the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers it features historic examples of London-made spectacles and will be holding the exhibition 'Look for the Letters', to mark the 150th anniversary of the test letter chart still used today by opticians to test eyesight.

The Jubilee may be behind us, but London isn't quite done with royal celebrations. Westminster Abbey Museum will celebrate the anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II with a special exhibition. Another British institution is the Bank of England on Threadneedle Street, and the Bank's excellent museum, located in a small corner of the huge and historic building, will be holding an exhibition called 'Cartoons and Caricatures', displaying satirical financial cartoons from the archive by artists such as James Gillray, John Tenniel and Steve Bell. Fans of cartoons should also visit the excellent Cartoon Museum close to the British Museum in Bloomsbury. They have regular, hugely entertaining, exhibitions and also organise Family Fun Days, drop-in cartooning sessions for families that are held on the second Saturday of every month.

A more unusual look at money comes from the Garden Museum in Lambeth, where they'll examine the story of the cut-flower trade with an exhibition entitled 'Floriculture: Flowers, Love and Money'. This museum, located in a beautiful converted church, covers the history of gardening and this exhibition in particular explores the history of flower-selling - a trade now worth £14.8m - while also looking at how cut flowers have influenced painters, and what their symbolism is in rites of passage such as marriage, funerals, and memory.

Similar themes are explored at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, a former Georgian orphanage that is now a gallery and museum and which will be exhibiting a touching selection of identifying tokens left by mothers when they left their unwanted babies at the hospital in the 18th century. Entitled 'Fate, Hope and Charity' this exhibition tells the stories behind the coins, jewellery, buttons, poems, playing cards and even a simple nut that were left by these often destitute mothers.


The Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury - a former Georgian orphanage; the Garden Museum in Lambeth is a frenzy of flowers

Very close to the Foundling Museum is the Charles Dickens Museum, which reopens in 2013 after extensive refurbishment and will have numerous events programmed through the year. Another museum devoted to a writer is Keats' House in Hampstead, who also have events all year including a speed-dating 18th century-themed masked ball at Valentines.

If music is the food of love, Handel's House Museum in Mayfair is the place to be. Their spring exhibition focuses on the composer's close collaborator Charles Jennens - the man behind 'Messiah'. The Royal Academy of Music Museum is also worth a visit for music lovers. This Marylebone-based museum has an exhibition about enigmatic jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, who has lived in London since 1952. The exhibition will feature his personal archive, instruments, awards, correspondence, scores and images, as well as a lively programme of events.

Also in Marylebone is the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre, which is devoted to the history of anaesthetics. This small space at the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland hosts a temporary exhibition relating to pain relief in emergency situations such as the London tube bombings. Almost as peculiar in scope is the Fan Museum across town in Greenwich. Their main exhibition for the first half of the year will be 'European Fans: 1800-1850', which is bound to be fan-tastic.

Towards the end of the year over in Islington, the Canal Museum will hold its annual costumed Halloween trip along the Regent's Canal and through the spooky Islington Tunnel. There are also regular talks and boat trips throughout the year at this museum devoted to London's canals.

As we approach Christmas, it's always worth checking out the Geffrye Museum in Hackney. The Geffrye is a museum devoted to the way the home has been decorated since 1600 and every year they have Christmas Past, an exhibition demonstrating how Christmas has been celebrated in middle-class homes in England over the past 400 years. The Brunel Museum also celebrates Christmas with special events in the tunnel and great hall.

Another great way to celebrate Christmas is with a tour of Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields. This incredible house has been decorated like an 18th-century weaver's home and is open for regular tours - every Christmas it is filled with the sights and smells of Christmas past. Finally, if you fancy ending the year with a Christmas concert, you can't get much more memorable than the annual sing-along at the RAF Museum in Hendon, where carols are sung from beneath a giant Lancaster bomber.


The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill; celebrate Christmas with a tour of the Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields
 
 
 
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