Hidden gem museums

By Graham Spicer

Britain's national museums and galleries, with their world-class collections, certainly attract the crowds - the British Museum alone sees more than four million visitors pass through its doors each year.

But if you want something slightly different and away from the madding crowd, there’s no shortage of alternatives. We could mention the Lawnmower Museum, the Pencil Museum or even tip our hat to the Bakelite Museum – where better to pay your respects to the precursor of modern plastic? There are dozens of quirky, hidden, inspiring and unusual places to marvel at, some of them distinctly off the beaten track, others just around the corner from it.

An area famed for its scenery and heritage is the south west of Cornwall. The town of St Ives, on its northern coast, has attracted and inspired artists for many years. Sculptor Barbara Hepworth, a contemporary of Henry Moore and arguably as influential, made her home in the town. The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, run by neighbouring Tate St Ives, displays dozens of her wood, stone, bronze and marble works, placed as she has wished before her death in 1975.

The garden is a wonderful place to ponder the links between art and nature – although Hepworth’s works are resolutely abstract, they were strongly influenced by the surrounding Cornish hills and coastline.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in the heart of the legal district, is an elegant square well known by lawyers but little visited by the throngs that pack nearby Covent Garden. One of London’s best, but lesser known, museums is innocuously located along its row of terraced town houses.

A modest queue of visitors outside its front door is the best clue to the location of Sir John Soane's Museum, and the wait is well worth it, because it’s not only the rich and charming collection within that appeals, but the house’s interior and the way its treasures are displayed.

Each room is packed full of rare paintings, sculptures and antiquities, collected by architect Soane (not to be confused with Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection founded the British Museum) between the 1780s and his death in 1837. Subsequent curators have been bound to preserve the museum as it was when Soane died, and the extraordinary range of closely displayed exhibits make it a real visual feast.

In south London, hidden away from the riverside and wharves in Southwark, The Old Operating Theatre, Museum and Herb Garret is one of the city’s more curious places to visit. It’s the oldest operating theatre in the country, located in the attic of St Thomas’s Church.

If you have ever bemoaned the hectic pace of modern life, a visit to this museum will make you glad that at least you live in a world with anaesthetic. Prior to 1847 surgeons had no reliable way of putting their patient to sleep, and what’s more, operations in Victorian times would have been viewed by a whole room of medical students – hence the term operating theatre.

If operations were painful, they were at least quick (an amputation could take less than a minute at the hands of a skilled surgeon) and you can see the original wooden theatre and learn the gory details of its past.

Its guided tours and regular events – speed surgery demonstrations anyone? – are typical of the country’s smaller and lesser-known attractions. While they may not boast the famous exhibits of some better-known venues, they can be just as rewarding and entertaining.

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