When it comes to museums, there’s no doubting London’s credentials as one of the world’s finest launchpads for the intrepid antiquarian. Huge, sprawling caverns of colonial collections and stunning curios line the magnificent colonnaded hallways of giants like the British Museum or the V&A, and no-one can deny that both have fully earned their status as truly wonderful exhibitors. Yet scratch below the surface and there’s a whole mini-museum microcosm just waiting to be explored – and you won’t have to shimmy past shoals of dough-eyed snappers to get a glimpse of some of the city’s most intriguing artefacts. Here’s just three of London’s unsung heroes:
Located just a canopic jar’s throw from the BM, the Petrie Museum holds some of London’s greatest Egyptian artefacts. Founded in 1892 by University College London, the museum contains some amazing antiques from the Egyptian adventures of William Flinders Petrie, one of the true greats of modern archaeology. It may not be laid out in the most user-friendly manner – many describe it as being the epitome of a stuffy, old-world cabinet case – but within its modest walls you’ll find such treasures as a fragment of the first kings list or calendar of Egypt (2900 BC), its first linen (5000 BC) and the oldest known example of Egyptian metalwork (3500 BC). For those fascinated by archaeology itself, the museum also houses records the digs which revolutionised Petrie’s profession.
The esteemed architect John Soane established this small museum in his own home, after the death of his wife in 1815. His burgeoning collection of antiquities is laid out in ornate fashion, and includes some fascinating Greek and Roman artwork, as well as Egyptian objects taken from Napoleon’s resident Egyptologist Dominique-Vivant Denon. All this aside, the Soane is worth a visit for one of its prized possessions alone. The huge sarcophagus of Seti I was rejected by the British Museum when they baulked at its 2,000 price tag. Soane swooped in and made it the centrepiece at his museum – and the giant decorated vessel is an incredible example of Egyptian workmanship. You can even get a guided audio tour from Stephen Fry, a nice touch.
Established in 1901 by intrepid tea merchant Frederick Horniman, this beautifully designed museum is a jewel in the crown of south London style. Renowned for its array of animalia and natural curios, the Horniman also boasts a 16-acre garden, resplendent with historical sculpture, and hosts a variety of human-based exhibitions such as Chinese textiles and the art of ancient India. Well worth a trip south of the river.
Image by Ellen Kabellen.