London has so many museums you can spend a lifetime visiting them all. In this post I selected some of the ones I think offer a more unique experience that you don’t want to miss out on.
London is so culturally rich, it can be overwhelming sometimes.
Out of the several hundred museums and galleries it has, you will probably visit the most famous ones (and often the most crowded ones), like the Victoria & Albert Museum or Tate Modern, which are amazing.
The museums I recommend in this post are extraordinary and lesser known to visitors.
You might overlook them if you just stick to a “Top 10 London Museums” list or a standard tourist guide. So don’t! They’re wonderful and well worth a visit.
The Cartoon Museum
This museum in central London takes you on a fascinating journey through history, from a very unusual perspective. The excellent permanent exhibition introduces you to the history of British cartoon and comic art of the past 250 years.
Cartoons may initially sound a bit childish or trivial, but there is a lot more to this collection than nice funny pictures – this is about humour but also about history, society, politics, culture and art.
I found this exhibition both funny and serious at the same time. Cartoons are meant to make you smile, but they are also thought provoking and can be a strong and clever tool of protest.
The exhibition starts with 18th century caricatures and ends with current day satire, with a wonderful range of graphic styles, historical events, characters and jokes in between.
It’s an impressive collection and it’s evident that a lot of work went into the research and the gathering of old materials.
The historical overview gives you an opportunity to explore many different types of humour. It is sometimes gentle and sometimes more direct, at times even poignant.
If you have any interest in graphic arts, you will undoubtedly enjoy the terrific variety of styles of sketching and drawing. You can read some biographical background about each cartoonist and look up more info on the ones you like.
Another permanent exhibition upstairs tells the history of comics in Britain. With comic strips from as early as 1862, it’s a fascinating display of how the art evolved. Again, these may be entertaining, but they can also be politically charged.
The Cartoon Museum is part of London’s Museum Mile and is located just a few minutes from the British Museum on a small street that’s quite easy to find.
Apart from the two permanent exhibitions, there is a temporary one too. You can easily spend a couple of hours at this museum. The descriptions are rather detailed and if you want to understand the historical context of the artwork, it’s worth reading them.
If you are a comic fan (or need to find a gift for a comic fan…), you will love the museum shop!
The Design Museum
Design touches on each and every aspect of our lives. What we wear, how we communicate, how we move around, and whether or not you’ll continue reading this blog – these are all design matters.
This museum is dedicated to all forms of design. It’s a spacious, impressive building that hosts a permanent exhibition and a couple of temporary ones.
The permanent exhibition is free to enter and is located on the top floor. As you enter, lift your head and you’ll see a large colourful sign with the title: Designer, User, Maker.
It starts with a timeline showing highlights in the history of design since 1759 in Britain and elsewhere, from the early days of industrialisation of furniture, through the birth of Art Deco to today’s 3D printers.
This gives a very rich overview using text and photos, and then as you turn the corner, the fantastic display of objects begins.
The range of objects is vast, and the reason for that is explained by a quote from architect and designer Ernesto Rogers, who said that the role of the designer stretches “from the spoon to the city”.
This first section of the exhibition demonstrated exactly that. It puts the London underground map, the fitted kitchen, typography, the internet of things and even some spoons together under one title: Designer.
There’s a wealth of information here, but it feels very accessible. Most items will probably be familiar to you, and it’s intriguing to read about how they were invented and their evolution.
The second section, User, looks at items we buy and use (furniture, fashion, electronic gadgets and the like), and more specifically at the range of factors that influence our decision to use them. Again, you’ll see familiar objects in a different light.
The idea here is that as users we decide which designs succeed, but our reasons for deciding that can be complex. Their look and feel matters, but also what they say about our identity, how useful they are, how much they cost and what value they give is and so on.
One of my favourite parts of this exhibition was the wall dedicated to a visually striking display of the evolution of technology. It’s a fantastic collection of electronic products, showing and how they changed over the years: televisions, music players, phones, computers, tablets, cameras and other everyday gadgets.
The third and final section is “Maker”. Here you can learn about handcrafted making, ethical manufacturing, crowdfunding and more. I think this section is the one most likely to change in coming years, as we live in a time of change.
We are used to mass manufacturing which has been dominant since industrialisation, but things are changing. The barriers to becoming a maker are lowering. One of the coolest items in this section is a large 3D printer at work. Behind it on the shelves you can see the various products it can make.
Design is an enormous field of knowledge and practice, and this exhibition is very well curated.
It feels that it covers the right amount of information with the right level of depth.
It teaches you a lot, makes you think differently about things you might take for granted and also makes you want to find out more. When you visit, make sure you have a good few hours to spare. There is a lot to take in and appreciate around this museum.
[Update: the museum is now temporarily closed for renovation and will re-open in 2020]
I must have been to this museum at least five times already. In its main exhibition, you walk along a corridor and look into people’s living rooms!
These rooms are incredibly detailed reconstructions of what living rooms in England looked like over the past 400 years.
As you view one room after the other, from the very simple 1630 room to a current day modern apartment, you can really see the changes over the decades and centuries.
I find it fascinating to note all these little changes – curtains, carpets, wallpaper, furniture and so on – and see how people made their homes more and more comfortable over the years.
It’s also interesting to see how little has actually changed. At the end of the day, we are still using essentially the same things – tables, chairs, carpets etc, but with variations. In other words, we could live in a house from the 19th century and it won’t be unfamiliar.
In between the rooms throughout the museum there is a wealth of information about the urban middle classes in England. This is the class the museum focuses on. You’ll learn a lot about their style, manners and ways of life. You can listen to extracts from letters, diaries, books and other materials from the time periods represented in the museum.
I love the attention to detail and the level of research that went into the exhibition. Every item is described and explained, from the choice of textiles to the mirror on the wall. You can also read about what domestic life was like.
The influences of other cultures on the English home is also something worth noting. As trade links evolved and as the British Empire expanded, you’ll notice more items imported from from China, India, Turkey, Germany and other places.
After viewing the eleven period rooms, you reach the part of the museum dedicated to the 20th century. Obviously, this part is more detailed, with more documentation available, and each decade has a room of its own.
Another part of the museum is the garden at the back which, in a similar way to the period rooms, demonstrates how urban gardens developed over the centuries. There are also temporary exhibitions, talks and more events.
As I said, I’ve been to this museum several times, simply because there’s so much to learn that one visit isn’t enough. If you have time in London, consider going twice. Entrance is free.
William Morris Gallery
A friend recommended this gallery to me and as I’d never heard of William Morris before, I didn’t know what to expect.
After doing a bit of reading, I learned that the man was a prominent character in the design world, but he’s certainly not easy to describe in one sentence.
As you enter the gallery, the first room on your right will give you a broad introduction to the many different aspects of this life.
William Morris was a craftsman, who trained in embroidery, wood engraving, weaving and many other crafts.
He was also a designer, famous for his pattern designs and wallpapers. But he was also a businessman, who turned his artistic skills into a successful business, selling household furnishings from his Oxford Street shop.
One of the most interesting about William Morris was that he was also a socialist. In fact, he was one of Britain’s first socialists. It affected both his business and his art.
Despite being from a well-off family, he decided not to produce things that only the rich could afford. At the same time, he was uncomfortable with industrialisation and strongly preferred hand made items.
Morris is quoted on a gallery wall saying: “I don’t want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few”.
You can guess from this brief description that the man had an intriguing life. The gallery takes you through the different phases of his life. Many of the beautiful items he made and designed are on display.
The exhibition is inside what used to be his family home, where he spent most of this youth and early adult life. At the entrance to each room you can read about what it was originally used for.
The gallery also hosts events, including craft workshops, as you might expect.
When you visit the gallery, it’s worth taking a walk around the neighbourhood too. The William Morris Gallery is in Walthamstow, a part of London not frequented by tourists. It’s the very last stop on the Victoria line, and so very easy to reach. From the gallery itself you can continue straight into Lloyd Park and chill on the grass with the ducks.
More Tips on Visiting Museums in London
There are so many excellent museums in London, and you obviously can’t see all of them in one visit.
You want to plan your trip to make the most out of London’s rich cultural offerings.
In some of the larger museums you can take a guided tour and see the highlights, without getting lost…
Private tours are available in the most famous museums:
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I’d like to thank the Design Museum and the Cartoon Museum for the invitation to visit. All opinions are mine.