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London’s 8 oddest museum exhibits
Bored of Buckingham Palace? May we introduce you to an overstuffed walrus or Churchill’s chamber pot?
Another day, another gallery of supposedly edifying objects huddled under glass -- museum fatigue can strike even the most enthusiastic traveler.
Where to cure such an affliction?
Well, London has not only some of the best museums in the world but also some of the oddest museum attractions.
The only risk in tracking down these bizarre and often fascinating exhibits is that you might replace museum fatigue with another potential syndrome -- “museum shock.”
1. Cricket casualty: Bowled-out sparrow
With its byzantine rules and glacial pace of play, cricket seems antiquated enough without requiring a museum to highlight its long and distinguished past.
It isn’t all fair play, polite applause and cucumber sandwiches, though.
The museum attached to London’s hallowed Lord’s cricket ground exposes the game’s violent side with an exhibit of a stuffed sparrow.
The poor bird was killed in mid-flight by a cricket ball bowled by the Pakistani cricketer Jahangir Khan during a match at Lord’s in 1936.
Its taxidermied corpse now sits atop the projectile that killed it.
Come for the sparrow, stay for … the Ashes -- a tiny urn that's one of cricket’s most coveted prizes.
MCC Museum, Lord’s Cricket Ground, St. John’s Wood Road; +44 207 616 8658
Half-man, half-fish, the male equivalent of a mermaid crops up in no fewer than two London museums.
The first, a menacing-looking thing in the eccentric Horniman collection, has been exposed as a creation of wood, fish and bone rather than -- surprise, surprise -- an actual merman.
The second, a wizened beast of equally fearsome appearance on display in the prestigious British Museum, was said to have been caught in the seas off Japan in the 18th century.
Closer examination revealed it to be half a monkey sewn on to half a fish -- but it’s still nasty enough to give you sleepless nights.
Come for the mermen, stay for … the Horniman’s legendary overstuffed walrus, wrought by someone more than 100 years ago who'd probably never seen a living specimen.
Horniman Museum and Gardens, 100 London Road; +44 208 699 1872
3. Jeremy Bentham’s skeleton
Bentham was a child prodigy who grew up to become a giant of British political philosophy and social reform at the turn of the 19th century.
He demanded in his will that his body be dissected and preserved as an “auto-icon.”
And so it was -- although he was given a waxy new head after his real one was rendered terrifying by the preservation process.
In 1850 the relic was acquired by University College London, the South Cloister of which he imperiously gazes upon to this day.
Come for Jeremy Bentham, stay for … the jar of moles (see 8, below).
South Cloister, UCL, Gower Street; +44 207 679 0664
4. Ram’s head snuff 'mull' -- on wheels
Not content with making a snuff dispenser out of the head of a large ram, someone in 19th century Scotland thought it would be a good idea to put the whole affair on wheels.
Presumably if your eyes weren’t watering enough when this satanic sight coasted across the room after dinner, they soon would be after you’d snorted up a good dose of its contents.
The object is part of a vast collection of medical oddities that form the wonderful Wellcome Collection, most of which is sadly off-limits until spring 2014, when it re-opens after a grand expansion program.
Come for the ram’s head, stay for … the vicious Chinese torture chair. More at home in a snuff movie, perhaps.
Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road; +44 207 611 2222. Check website for details of reopening.
5. Digestive and respiratory systems of a sea cucumber
You read that right.
This unsurprisingly stringy offering is just one of the incredible array of unusual animal and human body parts on display at the intriguing Hunterian Museum within London’s Royal College of Surgeons.
Each container of pickled organs is more confronting than the next (there are jars of pickled jaws, too).
Behold, the nasal passage of a minke whale, the anus and urethra of a hyena and a wince-inducing display of syphilis-ravaged human penises.
Come for the cucumber, stay for … the labyrinthine internal organs of a “hellbender” salamander.
Hunterian Museum, 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields; +44 207 869 6560
6. Churchill’s chamber pot
During World War II, Britain carved out a subterranean command center where military leaders and politicians could safely mastermind operations as bombs pounded the streets above.
These dank corridors and chambers filled with Bakelite telephones and bulky filing cabinets hosted the country’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill, overnight on three occasions.
Lurking beneath a surprisingly tiny bed is Churchill’s chamber pot, provided in the absence of flushing toilets.
Given the then prime minister’s predilection for hosting morning meetings while still under the blankets, it must be hoped that someone was employed to empty it promptly.
Come for the chamber pot, stay for … The Map Room -- once the buzzing heart of the bunker.
Churchill War Rooms, Clive Steps, King Charles Street; +44 207 930 6961
7. The ‘Elephant Man’s’ skeleton
Another skeleton, but this time with a more woeful story than Jeremy Bentham's above.
The unfortunate life of Joseph Merrick, a Victorian man whose severe deformities led him to be known as the Elephant Man, has been well documented, not least in the Oscar-winning David Lynch film of 1980.
His story remains fascinating, partly for the continuing scientific disagreement on what caused his condition, but also as a disquieting window on attitudes to disfigurement.
For that last reason, the Royal London Hospital maintains a museum display about the man who became one of its most celebrated patients.
The centerpiece is an exact replica of Merrick’s skeleton created by Gentle Giant, a special effects company that has worked on movies such as Hunger Games and Iron Man.
The exhibit also features the hat and shroud Merrick was obliged to don in public to avoid shocking those around him.
Come for the skeleton, stay for … the alarming medical tools: hemorrhoid clamps, anyone?
Royal London Hospital Museum, St. Philip's Church, Newark Street; +44 207 377 7608
8. Jar of moles
The UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology is home to possibly the oddest thing on display in London.
There isn’t much you can say about a glass jar inexplicably rammed with 18 dark-furred and pink-footed moles other than it is truly a thing of bad dreams.
Or terrible delicatessens.
The jar has, however, earned cult status via a well-followed Twitter account on which it appears to rail against government spending cuts and the insidiousness of stuffed fish.
Come for the moles, stay for … the massive anaconda skeleton. Gripping stuff.
Grant Museum of Zoology, Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University St.; +44203 108 2052