Time Out lifts the lid on some of the UK capital’s great unknown and unexpected treasures
Time Out Dubai staff
Time Out lifts the lid on some of the UK capital’s great unknown and unexpected treasures housed within some of its more novel institutions.
Natural History Museum: Spirit Collection Where can you see a squid that’s longer than a bus? One so huge that its ghostly white body looks like the encephalitic brain of a giant and its sprawling tentacles look like they could strangle an entire Cub Scout troop? The mighty Archie is the centrepiece of the Natural History Museum’s Spirit Collection – an archive of 22 million creatures – all preserved in a dizzying array of jars and tanks. Arranged over seven floors of a working laboratory, the collection is only partially open to the public through a daily tour, which takes in Archie’s basement lair.
Here, hundreds of vast containers line the basement’s walls, their murky liquids enveloping a menagerie of prehistoric-looking fish, coiled boa constrictors and rearing foxes. In one corner, there’s a cabinet of specimens collected by Charles Darwin, including his pet tortoise. Next door there’s a room full of grey metallic shelf units that you could easily mistake for a library archive on first glance. Except that they’re actually filled with specimens such as sperm whale eyeballs, the dorsal fin of the 2006 Thames whale and a floating kangaroo corpse. Tours vary each time as this is where live dissections take place (you will be pre-warned when these happen). www.nhm.ac.uk
Museum of London: Archaeological Archive This huge building (it’s even got a certificate naming it the largest archaeological archive in the world) tells the story of London in objects. You’ll find everything you need to know about the history of the city through artefacts like Roman mosaics and bricks from the Pudding Lane building where the Great Fire of London began in 1666. It’s a fascinating trip back in time laid out across 14km of shelving. www.museumoflondon.org.uk
London Transport Museum: Acton Depot
To make a visit, look out for specific open weekends throughout the year – these give you a chance to see hundreds of tube trains, buses, and an endless array of transport ephemera in a huge vaulted west London warehouse. There are uniforms, posters, signal boxes and enough signs to make sure you never get lost again. The real standout items, though, include a failed attempt to build a spiral escalator – which looks like a total death trap – and the plushest tube carriage you’ve ever seen, covered in velvet and gold leaf, from the glory days of 1898. Look out for the original 1926 Tube map to see what it was like before Harry Beck made it readable, as well as signs advertising Tube journeys so cheap you can’t believe it. The open days also let you get hands-on and peer at buses’ undercarriages from an inspection pit, ride Acton’s miniature railway and hitch a lift on a steam bus. www.ltmuseum.co.uk
Tate Britain: The Tate Archive Deep down in the bowels of Tate Britain in Pimlico lies the Tate Archive: an incredible bunker of art delights. Whether you’ve managed to wangle a one-on-one appointment or have joined one of the informal tours, you’ll be led through the archive’s flood-proof submarine doors into a space filled with 250,000 books, magazines and videos. Archivists can help you uncover James Whistler’s paint palette, Walter Sickert’s overalls and vintage photographs (such as Henry Scott Tuke painting on the beach in 1914). You’ll basically be rifling through the history of British art. You can also just take a seat in the sleek Reading Room and ask one of the librarians to bring you whatever item you want from the archive – you’ll feel like some art collector, lounging with Turner sketches. www.tate.org.uk
Magic Circle Museum
Harry Houdini’s handcuffs and various mechanical fortune tellers are among the pieces of memorabilia in this Euston museum. www.themagiccircle.co.uk
London Sewing Machine Museum Where can you see 600 beautifully maintained vintage sewing machines? Well, look no further than this Tooting museum, open the first Saturday of every month inside the Wimbledon Sewing Machine Company. www.visitlondon.com
London Fire Brigade Museum Book yourself a visit to this wonderful little museum in Southwark to learn about the history of fire fighting in London since 1666. Something presumably happened that year to make people think fire brigades would be kind of useful. www.london-fire.gov.uk
Cinema Museum This is one of London’s most under- appreciated museums and a cramped cornucopia of picture house heritage. Tucked-away in Kennington the space is packed with art deco furnishings, usherette uniforms and oddities. www.cinemamuseum.org.uk
Need to know
Getting there Qantas flies direct to London Heathrow from Dhs2,619 return. www.qantas.com.au