Museums and galleries are among the safest public spaces to visit at the moment. With timed tickets, social distancing measures and increased cleaning regimes, we’ve felt much less at risk than, say, in a supermarket or shopping centre. Plus, the lack of crowds makes this an excellent time to take a closer look at the exhibits.
Many museums are open and need our help right now. Those reduced visitor numbers mean a drastic cut in income. If you’re able, do get out and explore these cultural gems, and support them with donations. We’ve chosen five -- one at each point of the compass, plus central -- that every family should know about.
Central: Florence Nightingale Museum
Did you know that it’s the Lady of the Lamp’s bicentenary? Florence Nightingale, born in 1820, is the subject of this smashing little museum in St Thomas’s Hospital, beside Westminster Bridge. The museum opened a new exhibition about her career just before lockdown, which explores her life in 200 objects. Not all are what you might expect -- any guesses as to why a model Delorean from Back to the Future is on show? What with the bicentenary, and the intense public interest in healthcare this year, there’s never been a better time to visit this museum. While you’re in the area, pay your respects to another famous nurse, Mary Seacole, whose statue stands outside the hospital.
Florence Nightingale Museum, St Thomas’s Hospital, 2 Lambeth Palace Road.
Another tip? The Grant Museum of Zoology, with its famous jar of moles (UCL).
North: London Canal Museum
Florence isn’t the only one celebrating 200 years. The Regent’s Canal, which runs from Paddington Basin to Limehouse Basin, also claims 1820 as its year of ‘birth’. A walk along the canal is the best way to celebrate this, but you should also stop by this gem of a museum in King’s Cross. You’ll not only get a fascinating glimpse into the history of the waterways, but you’ll also learn about the building’s former use as a Victorian ice cream store. The giant ice well can still be seen.
London Canal Museum, Battlebridge Basin, King’s Cross.
Another tip? The Jewish Museum in Camden Town.
South: Horniman Museum
It’s perhaps a stretch to call the Horniman a small museum. It boasts several galleries, an aquarium, a top-notch cafe, a landmark clock tower, and extensive grounds that are an attraction in their own right. Even so, the Forest Hill venue isn’t as famous as it deserves to be. We’d rate it as one of the finest museums in London for children, with regularly changing temporary exhibitions that are usually geared towards kids. The permanent galleries explore everything from musical instruments to natural history to everyday items from different cultures. The museum’s iconic over-stuffed walrus is just one of their many exhibits your kids will never forget. After exploring the museum, be sure to spend some time in the gardens, which have spectacular views over south London and feature an imaginative sundial trail.
The Horniman Museum, 100 London Road, Forest Hill.
Another tip? The Garden Museum in Lambeth, recently revamped.
East: The Brunel Museum
Here’s another fact for you: London had the world’s first underwater tunnel. The Thames Tunnel was masterminded by father-and-son team of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It opened in 1843 and runs between Wapping and Rotherhithe. It was originally a pedestrian tunnel, but today carries London Overground trains. Families can discover its fascinating history in the old engine house in Rotherhithe, then descend down into one of the original entrance shafts. Check the museum’s website ahead of half term, as it’s always been good at putting on special activities for kids.
The Brunel Museum, Railway Avenue, Rotherhithe.
Another tip? Museum of London Docklands near Canary Wharf… not so small, but not on everybody’s radar.
West: The Battle of Britain Bunker
We began with two museums celebrating anniversaries, and end in the same way. The Battle of Britain -- the world’s first major air battle -- took place over the skies of southern England exactly 80 years ago. It was all overseen from a secret bunker out in Hillingdon, which is now a museum. It still feels a bit secretive, hidden away down the back streets in a corner of London most of us never visit, which is all part of the fun. Inside, you can see the preserved operations room, as Churchill would have viewed it at the height of the battle. An exhibition space tells the story of the battle, and the history of the bunker. An auditorium offers virtual views of the control room for those not able to descend the 76 steps.
Battle of Britain Museum, Wren Avenue, Uxbridge
Another tip? Museum of Water & Steam in Chiswick. Very family friendly -- currently outdoor spaces only, but gearing up for full opening.
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