Where can you find a time-travelling clock, a spiral escalator and a desiccated merman? Try a museum.
Museum’s are chock-full of important historical artefacts and priceless antiques. But you’ll also stumble across exhibits that are truly unique, unusual and -- occasionally -- bonkers. Here, we’ve rounded up a few favourites that kids will find especially appealing.
For something a little less crazy but no less interesting, take a look at the best small museums in London for kids for a trip to these hidden gems. If you'd rather not leave the house, show the kids these best history games so they can learn something while they play.
Anyone with under-5s will immediately recognise this elegant timepiece. It’s the time-travelling clock from Andy’s Dinosaur Adventures, and its various CBeebies spin-offs. In the show, Andy works in the “National Museum”, a thinly disguised version of the Natural History Museum. And it is here you can view his clock. It seems to move around a bit -- we’ve spotted it near the main entrance and close to the ground-floor cafe, and it may be entirely absent if it’s been sent back in time. So phone ahead if you want to avoid disappointment.
A Wasp’s Nest In A Gentleman’s Hat
Also in the Natural History Museum is this strange confection. At first glance, it looks like someone’s filled a bowler with cereal, as though to ‘eat their hat’. But the information panel reveals this to be a wasp’s nest (“now empty”, the label reassures). The hat was found on the Rothchild’s estate at Tring -- now home to a small offshoot of the Natural History Museum. You’ll find it on the upper floors of the Hintze Hall.
A Fake Merman
The neighbouring Science Museum has an endless supply of curiosities, but I always do a double take when passing this creature. It’s a fake merman, put together like a Frankenstein’s monster from bits of fish and mammal. Little is known about its origins. It probably comes from Indonesia, and was likely pieced together in the second half of the 19th century. But no one is sure exactly when, where or why. It’s currently on display in the new Medicine galleries.
An Historic Cheeseburger
Now here’s one to relish from York’s National Railway Museum: the polystyrene packaging that surrounded the “last microwaved burger served on the Great Northeastern Railway”, dating from May 1999. The GNER franchise continued for another eight years, so why did they stop doing microwaved burgers in 1999? And why was the change in catering policy deemed important enough to preserve this packaging as a museum piece? I could probably look up the answer online, but I think it’s more fun to keep it a mystery.
Sherlock Holmes’s Toilet
The Sherlock Holmes Museum has the best-known door number of any cultural venue in the world: 221b Baker Street. The small museum is decked out as though it’s the apartment of Holmes and Watson, right down to the lavatory. It’s not the cleanest, it has to be said. The tainted bowl brings to mind the classic case from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Second Stain”. See our guide to exploring Sherlock’s London.
A Spiral Escalator
Escalators are an efficient way of getting thousands of people into and out of Tube stations, but they do take up a lot of space. London Underground did once explore an alternative -- a helical escalator that would fit into the space of a lift shaft. The only example was fitted out in Holloway Road Tube station in 1902. It proved too complicated, and never saw any passenger use. It was soon dismantled and forgotten about, only to be rediscovered in 1988. You can now see it at London Transport Museum’s Acton Depot, on its occasional open days.
Margaret Thatcher’s Head
With Spitting Image returning to our televisions, this is a timely opportunity to see one of the show’s most famous puppets from the 1980s. The latex version of Margaret Thatcher is on display at the Imperial War Museum, in one of the mezzanine galleries. It’s an unlikely item of humour to find in a museum about war. Thatcher was Prime Minister during the 1982 Falklands conflict.
A Fake Tube Station
And finally, where can you find a whole Tube platform inside a museum? Not in London. This mockup of Covent Garden station is inside the Jackfield Tile Museum, in Ironbridge Shropshire. Many of the glazed tiles you’ll find on the Underground were made in Ironbridge, hence the display.
All images by the author.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.