A Brief Guide to Some of London’s Lesser-Seen Museums

LONDON IS ONE OF the great museum capitals of the world, and whereas the Tate Modern and National Gallery may be obvious choices, there is a surfeit more whose aim is so peculiarly niche that I’m a little surprised anyone sporting only a vague interest would bother to pay the admission fee. Then again it is that same vague and disbelieving curiosity that brought me, so I suppose I am in good company.

1. The Sherlock Holmes Museum

I expected 221b Baker Street (which, fun fact, isn’t even 221b Baker Street, but something in the mid-240s Baker Street, later legally changed by the people who bought this house and wanted to transform it into a tourist attraction) to be a freaky circus of Sherlock cosplayers and placards describing his life and work. It isn’t. It’s just a thin apartment-style home filled with decadent Victorian-era miscellany and furniture. Most of it is at least historically fun, especially the round glass apparatus that resembles a crown with ball-tipped spokes that, according to the main hostess girl dressed as a 19th-century maid, is “the only thing here that no one knows what it does.” (Fun Fact #2: the museum’s creators inherited it, along with the rest of the Victorian kitsch, from the old woman who sold them the house in 1990.)

The museum itself barely even references the fictional detective at all until the upper levels, where visitors will stumble on terrifying wax mannequin recreations of famous Sherlock scenes. The maids who work there are also, at least, required to know some modicum of Sherlock trivia, and are mostly bored university English or theatre students who drily announce, “Welcome to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, would you like to start in Sherlock’s room.” as if the sentence weren’t at all a question, and restrain themselves from violently throttling everyone who asks if Benedict Cumberbatch films his show here, which, by the way, he does not.

2. Greenwich’s Royal Observatory

Straddling the exact location of the prime meridian is kind of fun for precisely five seconds. Thankfully the adjacent museum, which teaches the creation of our conception of time, is wacky and fascinating. It pays homage to the pathologically insane souls who stuck their eyes into telescope lenses every night for 40 years to mark the time and altitude that each star (every fucking one!) as it passed this arbitrary line on a hill. It is baffling that men spent their entire lives dedicating to figuring out time, literally counting down the hours until their too-early disease-ridden deaths, sometimes compiling after decades nothing more than heaps of worthless pseudo-scientific rubbish.

The museum also briefly features what is unfair to call, but will here nonetheless be called, the absolute idiocy of those who tried to come up with a better system for timekeeping at sea. The best: “The Powder of Sympathy”. This magical powder mixture required an organism to be harmed via knife, then said knife to be submerged into said powder, which was meant to elicit a ghostly stabbing feeling in the person where the knife had first attacked. Basically, voodoo. So they tried this: they grazed a bunch of dogs with this one knife and shoved the dogs on long-distance boats and, every day at noon, some dude in London plunged the same knife into the Powder of Sympathy and expected the dogs, wherever the hell they were in the world, to yelp and announce that it was lunchtime. As the exhibit wryly summaries, “It proved totally useless.”

3. The Anaesthesia Museum

In a pompous street lined with embassies and security guards lies the quiet Anaesthesia Association of England, and in its basement, their distinguished half-room museum. The half-room is filled with nightmarishly primitive dental and anaesthetic tools with names derived from what sounds like a continental association of mad scientists: “Fuchain Gag”, “Ogston Ether Mask”, “Jectaflo Apparatus”, “Hewitt’s Nitrous Oxide and Oxygen Stopcock”. Once you get past the’ eeriness you can learn a pretty comprehensive amount about the history of anaesthetia and it’s applications, from bloody Victorian surgeries through to the London Underground bombing of 2005. Ambiance-wise, the free entry is bettered only by the fact that the place is quiet and empty; the only people you might run into are presumably die-hard anaesthesiologists or very historically-minded perverts.

4. The Freemason Museum

A very staunch and not-at-all-easily-fooled woman, so Muslim she covered up everything but her skeptical brown eyes and local British accent, simply refused to believe that our charismatic old tour guide was being honest about Freemasonry. “I read in your Blue Book that you, a Freemason, can’t tell me the secrets of Freemasons,” she led on. “So how do I know that you’re telling the truth?” The guide—whose wispy white hair and bright red tie gave him a festively professorial air—did his best to assure her that “there are no secrets anymore” and the topic of a secret clan “has been exhausted.” A young bearded American Freemason chimed in by explaining their obsolete oath of silence (obsolete basically because of the Internet and mass publishing) which she quietly accepted. “I also have a question about the symbols,” she added when they finished. “A lot of these symbols are symbols of the occult, of dark magic…” The American sighed loudly and threw his head back.

I realize that this tour is separate from the main museum itself, which is a collection of antique trinkets and gifts surrounding the headquarters of England’s Freemasons, but by the time our hour of being led through bronze doors that weight as much as small elephants and broadly Biblical inscriptions that apparently were now only symbolic because, paradoxically, they accept any and all people including Hindus and Muslims but not a) poor people or b) atheists, I was so mentally and physically exhausted that the trivial gold-plated whatevers behind glass cabinets were simply boring. To their credit, the museum and optional tour are free, though the whole scenario feels silently alienating if you’re not wearing a crisp black suit and tie.

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