Britain's quirkiest museums
From Churchill's false teeth to Kate Moss's birthday suit, our selection of Britain's quirkiest museums has something for everyone.
FOR PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES
Glasgow Riverside Transport Museum
Replacing the treasured Kelvin Transport Museum, the Riverside has been dubbed “Glasgow’s Guggenheim” because it’s housed in a quirky über-modern glass and steel “shed” designed by Zaha Hadid (the architect behind the Olympic Aquatics Centre).
Built on the point where the River Kelvin meets the Clyde, at least three-quarters of a million pairs of Glaswegian feet have tramped through here since it opened last June. The museum houses steam engines, motorbikes, Glasgow trolley buses and just about anything else that boasts a set of wheels, wings or sails. One of the last tall ships in existence is moored outside, and you can take a ferry there from Govan. For those not in love with transport, there’s a recreation of a 19th-century Glasgow street, full of traditional shops, tramcars and an old subway station.
Entrance is free
FOR CHILDREN OF ALL AGES
The Natural History Museum, Hertfordshire
The Victorians were mad about collecting, and this is essentially the personal taxidermy collection of just one home-educated boy, which begun when he was five years old. But as a member of the Rothschild family, Walter, the 2nd Baron, had both the necessary funds and the impressive connections to build an extraordinary array of some 4,000 first-class samples—and (bypassing a career in the family banking firm) took 40 years to do it.
It’s all housed at the site of his one-time family home in Tring, Hertfordshire, now an outpost of the Natural History Museum. There’s just about every stuffed animal you could ever imagine, and quite a few you couldn’t: a polar bear (sketched by Raymond Briggs for his animated book The Snowman); George, a mandrill from London Zoo; a four-ton elephant seal; some 80 breeds of domestic dog; and even dressed fleas (yes, you read that correctly). Gawp in wonder.
Entrance is free
FOR ARTY TYPES
The Pencil Museum, Cumbria
A museum all about the history of the everyday pencil—and who knew its origins were right here in the Lake District? Aeons ago, shepherds found an uprooted tree that exposed the underlying graphite, which they then used to mark sheep. From then, a collection of cottage industries morphed into the Cumberland Pencil Company, which produces Derwent Pencils and became the first pencil factory back in 1832.
There are free daily artists’ demonstrations and workshops, so you can enter quite literally not knowing one end of a pencil from another and emerge with a drawing. The lovely Lake District location adds to the experience and the wonderful shop is especially enjoyable for stationery lovers.
Entrance: adults £4.25; children £3.25
The Time Machine Museum of Science Fiction, Hertfordshire
Incongruously housed inside a 400-year-old building in the pretty village of Bromyard, this is the result of 30 years of obsessive collecting by anorak (his word) Andy Glazzard. There are artefacts from other sci-fi classics (Thunderbirds, Red Dwarf), but most of the museum centres on Doctor Who memorabilia. There are three Cybermen (above) from different eras and, scariest of all, several Daleks, including one called Norman. Press the button to see it light up and shriek “Exterminate!”—enough to spark a million nightmares. With snaky corridors and atmospheric lighting, small children might find it creepy…rather like the series.
Entrance: adults £8; children £6
The Fashion Museum, Bath, Somerset
Clothes, clothes and more clothes. The dresses date from as far back as 1660, go through to a contemporary Vivienne Westwood number, and cover all points in between (for men and women) including a fine collection of 18th-century court dresses, which prompt the question: “How did they move in those?”
One of the most popular exhibits is the “Dress of the Year”, which starts with a groovy 1963 Mary Quant ensemble and includes an Eighties Katherine Hamnett “Stop Killing Whales” T-shirt, a garish Versace number worn by Jennifer Lopez, and a starry patterned Chanel trouser suit that somehow survived Kate Moss’s 34th birthday party. Also hugely popular is the replica crinoline and corset—visitors can attempt to lace themselves into the corset Scarlett O’Hara-style (and remind themselves ruefully that her waist was reputedly a mere 18-and-a-half inches…)
Entrance £8 (includes access to Assembly Rooms); children £6
FOR THE BIZARRE
The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
General Pitt Rivers fought in the Crimea, died in 1900, and donated his private collection of archaeological and ethnographical items to Oxford University. Since then, various scholars, travellers and colonial explorers have added to it, and the result is this higgledy-piggledy jumble of exotic knick-knacks from all over the world, crammed into dimly lit glass cases. Get lost for a fascinating couple of hours exploring the three floors here, which contain everything you could imagine—creepy religious statues from the Democratic Republic of Congo, mummified crocodiles and a totem pole from British Columbia (pictured), as well as bits and bobs brought back from the South Pacific by Captain Cook. Items are arranged thematically rather than by region, so you get, say, all amulets and charms together.
Sigmund Freud had a low opinion of obsessive collectors; in his view, it suggested “abnormality and personal failure” (among other things). Leaving that aside, this really will make you wonder at the diversity of the world.
Entrance is free
FOR THOSE WITH A STRONG STOMACH
The Hunterian, London
Creepy and eccentric, the Hunterian is located inside the Royal College of Surgeons, a quiet spot in a beautiful Georgian square where you can step into the weird world of medical specimens. Named after its founder, the 18th-century anatomical expert John Hunter, the museum has had a sleek refurb but still gives off the aura of an old science lab, with its rows of jars containing the preserved remains of animals and humans.
More than just a freak show (though kids of all ages will be transfixed by the gruesome specimens, such as the four-legged chick or Churchill’s false teeth), it’s also a history of illness and treatment. The visitor can only guess at some of the tragic stories behind the exhibits, especially those in the “morbid anatomy” glass cases.
Entrance is free
FOR A TRIP BACK IN TIME
Birmingham Back to Backs
The last surviving block of tiny terraced houses in Birmingham city—the sort that sprang up all over the country during the 19th century and were pulled down during the “slum clearance” of the Sixties—have been lovingly restored to give a real insight into living conditions for working-class ‘Brummies’ (cramped and often grim).
These houses present a snapshot of different periods, from 1841 through to a perfect recreation of one of the very last buildings—a 1970s shop owned by Afro-Caribbean tailor George Saunders, complete with groovy Seventies suits and Roy Rogers wallpaper. There’s also a 1930s sweet shop in the block with rows of bottled goodies for sale. The visit is by guided tour; avoid bank holidays if possible, as the tiny houses get very crowded.
Located on 50–54 Inge Street and 55–63 Hurst Street.
Entrance: £7.25 (or £8 with Gift Aid donation); children £3.90 or £4.40
FOR A HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE
Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenafon, South Wales
A Victorian-built working mine until 1980, Blaenafon is now an award-winning museum about life on the coalface. The big lure here is the extraordinary trip 300 feet down to the pit—guided by ex-miners happy to give you all the information you could ask for. Visitors wear helmets, cap lamps and 12 pounds of batteries to descend into the blackness. Upstairs, the museum concentrates on a history of the Welsh mining community—the friendship, the hardships, and the decline that began during the Depression, which eventually led to strikes in the 1980s and pit closures. Take a hankie. And wear flat shoes.
Entrance and pit tours are both free