London’s Smaller Museums Are Hidden Jewels Worth Searching Out


As the U.K.’s capital emerged from the pandemic restrictions, the Courtauld Gallery opened after a three year pre-planned lockdown of its own. Based in Somerset House, just off the Strand, and part of the University of London, it’s a jewel box of Impressionism and other works of art.

Unlike London’s cultural big-hitters such as the National Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, there is an entry fee but the rewards are many, including crowd-free appreciation of a carefully curated collection of art that includes Van Gogh, Monet and Gauguin but also the 16th century German Cranach, paintings by Botticelli and the British Bloomsbury group in a light and airy building.

A short walk away, the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden is a very different experience; a collection of vintage buses and underground memorabilia that brings joy to every transport-obsessed child and adult who enters the building, a converted fruit warehouse with bells to ring and vintage forms of transport to clamber on. (It can get very busy in the school holidays especially, and like the Courtauld, there’s an entrance fee.). The Museum’s shop is one of the best places in London for souvenirs, including furniture made from the moquette of the new Elizabeth line.

London’s Museum of the Home also re-opened in the summer 2021 after a three year closure. It is housed in a series of buildings was once a collection of alms house founded by Robert Geffyre, who was involved in the slave trade. Formerly called the Geffrye, the museum’s new name makes its purpose clearer, a look at social history through a series of rooms – and gardens – that reference different historical periods, from a 16th century knot garden and a 17th century parlor to a 1998 loft apartment, complete with a Nigella Lawson cookery book and a Philippe Starck lemon squeezer.

The museum is housed in an 18th-century set of buildings at Shoreditch, now one of London’s most interesting business and residential areas. It is a neighborhood that has seen waves of immigration and remains strong on food and independent galleries. The museum’s renovation has increased the amount of temporary exhibition space, which is given over to a Festival of Sleep until September 2022.

In the very charming area of Marylebone just off Oxford Street, the Wallace Collection also has off-radar appeal even though one of its highlights, Fragonard’s The Swing has recently been rehung and there’s a special exhibition Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts until October 31.

There are some delightful cultural reasons to head away from the center of London. In the highly desirable residential area of Islington – a quick bus or underground ride to Angel – you’ll find the Estorick Collection, devoted to Italian art, especially futurism, which opened in 1998.

In Forest Hill – reached by overground train from London Bridge, the Horniman Museum covers some of the same territory as the Natural History Museum. There are taxidermied animals, including an overstuffed walrus, and a touch of eccentricity but the portions are manageable. Entrance is free to the main museum, visits to the aquarium and butterfly house cost extra but with its own farmer’s market and families who visit regularly, it also has a real sense of neighborhood.



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