London’s wacky and unusual attractions are guaranteed to capture the imagination of those who are brave enough to find them. Adam Bennett follows the footsteps of murderers, surgeons and pathologists to discover some truly bizarre objects in the best weird museums in London.
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The Grant Museum of Zoology in Bloomsbury boasts over 1,000 separate species of rare and extinct animals, the largest collection in the United Kingdom. Among its exhibits, visitors can see the flightless Dodo and a Tasmanian tiger. Perhaps the rarest animal is a Quagga – a half-striped relative of the zebra now hunted to extinction.
A strong contender for the strangest object at the Grant Museum is a collection of eighteen moles, preserved in formaldehyde and stuffed into a jar. The moles even have their own rather amusing Twitter account.
Other weird and wacky objects inside the museum include a collection of stomach-churning brains preserved in alcohol. If you can take more after that, look for the Negus Collection of bisected heads. It's one of the world’s largest collections of preserved mammal heads, including a chimp, a rabbit and a sloth.
A truly unique place, Bart's Pathology Museum was established in 1879 and houses over 5,000 of the oddest specimens from the human body. The museum is part of the larger Barts Medical School, officially St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College. Established in 1123, it's the oldest hospital in the UK. Besides its collection, the museum also runs quirky workshops – try “Taxidermy for Beginners” if you dare. Seek out the skull of John Bellingham, the only man in history to assassinate a British Prime Minister.
Barts medical school and museum also features in the history of Sherlock Holmes. Creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the museum as part of his medical training. It's also said that he wrote some of his short Sherlock stories in one of Bart’s main offices.
Housed in the attic of the old St. Thomas' Hospital church, this is the oldest surviving operating theatre in Britain. This piece of medical history was temporarily lost during the late 1800s when St Thomas’s Hospital moved to Lambeth. It was rediscovered in 1956 when a man named Raymond Russell decided to explore the attic of the original church. As you tour the operating theatre (with seats for observing medical students) it's hard to not to get spooked. You can well imagine the blood-curdling screams of patients operated on without anaesthetic. The charged atmosphere makes this one of the top weird museums in London.
Visitors can gaze into glass cabinets containing various gruesome medical instruments. You'll find contraptions essential for restraining patients and tools used for amputations. As there was no source of anaesthetic at the time surgeons depended on speed, and experts were able to remove a limb in under a minute (!). There’s even a pair of preserved lungs blackened by Victorian smog.
In the former red-light district of Bankside, the Clink Prison once housed heretics, drunkards, vagabonds and vagrants. The prison dates back to 1144, and the Clink Museum covers over 600 morbid years of damp, death and decay. A trip here is a chance to explore the story of crime and punishment throughout the ages.
Displays include horrific instruments of torture and restraining devices, used to cause pain and discomfort to unfortunate inmates. You can inspect the deadly apparatus wielded by jailers upon ill-fated convicts while learning about famous residents of the Clink, who often met their end at the Tower of London.
Set in the crypt of St Philip’s Church, the Royal London Hospital Museum in Whitechapel is another of the top weird museums in London. The hospital was a temporary residence for one of London’s most controversial “curiosities”: Joseph Merrick. Better known as the Elephant Man, Merrick lived at the hospital for a number of years during the 1800s.
Four separate films in the museum document Merrick’s deformity. In addition, a number of items of clothing are he wore to disguise his unusual disfigurement are on display. You can also see exhibits dedicated to celebrated war-time nurses Edith Cavell and Eva Luckes.
At the height of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in 1888, hospital curator and surgeon Thomas Horrocks Openshaw helped Scotland Yard with investigations. The museum has acquired some of the original forensic material from the case.
To top it all off the museum also features a selection of surgical instruments, old uniforms and written archives of the history of healthcare in the East End. It's a fascinating way to discover another side of London’s dramatic history.
See our guide on where to stay in London, and explore more quirky corners of this city with the Rough Guide to London.