Free Museums in London

The choice of free museums in London is, quite simply, overwhelmingly large. Unless you live in the city, you cannot hope to make a dent in them. While some of the most famous museums are famous for a very good reason, I still think it’s best to follow your passions and not to mind if that means you go and see a museum that tells you the history of the steam engine that no one has heard of, but didn’t get time to look at the asteroids in the Science Museum. To help you work out what you want to see, here’s a handy guide to the best free museums in London.

Big and Unrivalled

The British Museum- Eric Pouhier

The British Museum,

Great Russell St, London, WC1B 3DG
020 7323 8299

Nearest Tube Stations:
Goodge Street, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road or Holborn. Euston and Euston Square are also just 15 minutes walk away.

Visit for:
Any kind of human culture really. It may make you feel uncomfortable if you stop and think about how we got most of the exhibits, but my word colonialism really did give London a global treasure trove. From the 2,000,000BC cutting tool (I’ll be honest, it really just looks like a rock. I know that’s probably a terrible thing to say. But really. You have to have a good imagination for that one) to Egyptian mummies to Easter Island statues and Japanese Samurai suits. It’s all here. There are also free tours throughout the day and hands-on sessions where you get to poke things.

Best Exhibits:
The Rosetta Stone. The actual Rosetta Stone.

The Parthenon Marbles. They may be controversial, and undoubtedly would be better in Greece, but see them while they’re here!

Mexico. So there’s only a few small rooms on Central American cultures, but they’re amazing. They are like nothing else, which is good when you’ve seen a hundred Greek statues, and you’ll definitely learn something. I discovered the Olmec who are possibly my favourite topic of conversation at the moment.

Natural History Museum - Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Natural History Museum

Cromwell Rd, London SW7 5BD
020 7942 5000

Nearest Tube Stations:
South Kensington or Knightsbridge.

Visit for:
Anything to do with the natural world. It’s got huge collections of fossils (including and wildly popular dinosaur exhibiton), stuffed exhibits, exhibits on geology (that may sound boring, but it does include volcanoes), human biology and a wildlife garden.

Best Exhibits:
The Archaeopteryx. Dinosaurs are definitely not just for small boys any more. The galleries at the Natural History Museum includes casts from real specimens they keep more securely, but that does not detract from the magic of seeing them, and for me the best fossil of them all is that of the ever-mysterious half-bird half-lizard, Archaeopteryx.

The Blaschka Glass Models.  Created in the late 1800’s, using techniques so secret no one can now make them again, these are models of sea creatures with such exquisite details and grace it’s like they’re alive.

Pygmy Elephant Tooth. I mean the title says it all really. Cyprus had pygmy elephants. They may be gone now, but who doesn’t enjoy imagining  that.

Wold Cottage Meteorite. The first recorded UK Meteorite, and the one that caused people to start taking stories of “rocks falling from the sky” seriously.

Apollo Ten - Rodrigo Menezes (Ironman br)

Science Museum

Exhibition Rd, London SW7 2DD
0870 870 4868

Nearest Tube Stations:
South Kensington or Knightsbridge.

Visit for:
All things science, from space and robots, to clocks and steam engines, all kinds of inventions and innovations are here. It’s not a great place for serious science lovers. There is a lot of focus on spectacle and interaction, and not as much information about each exhibit as there could be, but it is still remarkable to see.

Best Exhibits:
The Difference Engine. The first computer, built in 1849 by Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. This is not the original, but was rebuilt from his plans with original techniques and materials in 1991 to see if it worked. And it does!

John Harrison’s Clocks. The man who finally solved the problem of determining Longitude at sea, John Harrison had to fight his whole life to have his time pieces recognised. Now they take pride of place in the time gallery.

Soyuz Capsule. Yup. This has been into space.

Tippoo's Tiger - V&A

V & A Museum

Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL
020 7942 2000

Nearest Tube Stations:
South Kensington or Knightsbridge.

Visit for:
Fashion, Art and Style. Not everyone agrees it should be classed as a museum, and it certainly occupies a strange mid point between gallery and museum, but it is fascinating. It has galleries for fashion, furniture, Asian art, ceramics, glass, jewellery and the first gallery for Architecture in the UK. There are 16,000 objects from China alone.

Best Exhibits:
Tippoo’s Tiger. An Indian automaton from the late 1700’s, it’s a carving of a tiger mauling a man, and when the handle is turned, and organ plays, and the man’s hands wave in distress.

Qing Dynasty Throne. An 18th century Chinese throne, beautifully carved, that was looted by Russian troops in 1900 and then brought to Britain after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The First Photograph of London.Taken in 1839, just weeks after the announcement of the invention of daguerreotype, this photo shows Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square. And it looks remarkably like London today.

Lesser Known

Memento Moris at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection

183 Euston Rd, London NW1 2BE
020 7611 2222

Nearest Tube Stations:
Euston Square, Warren Street or Euston. Kings Cross is also just 15 minutes walk away.

Visit For:
Scientific curiosities. It describes itself as the “Destination for the Incurably Curious” and I can’t really do better than that. Started by Henry Wellcome, a entrepreneurial pharmacist who created the tablet form of medicine in 1884, it showcases some of his vast collection of curios and cures from around the world. On his death, his collection totalled around 1.5 million items, far bigger than most museums at the time. His will created the Wellcome Trust, which is now the largest independent charitable foundation doing medical research today. It’s worth noting that this museum is the exception in London in that their special exhibitions are also free.

Best Exhibits:
Peruvian Mummy. If you’re bored of Egyptian mummies (though why would you be?), the Wellcome Collection has an unusual Peruvian mummy, preserved in foetal position.

Robotic Arm Kit. For the unlucky soldier from World War I who had lost both arms, this kit comes with a range of cutlery appendages to attach to a robotic substitute that would be operated by foot pedals, to ensure you could feed yourself at the dining table.

Swine Flu. Not quite in all it’s unadulterated glory I’m pleased to say, but the Wellcome Collection has a glass model of the virus that really is quite beautiful.

Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany

Museum Of London

150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN
020 7001 9844

Nearest Tube Stations:
Barbican, St Paul’s and Moorgate.

Visit For:
A touch of local history. Artefacts from prehistory to today, all from London. A good place to get a sense of daily life in London through time, rather that just seeing the stately homes of the rich and famous. It’s also remarkable just how many things seem to end up the Thames.

Best Exhibits:
Oliver Cromwell’s Death Mask. Look at the fact of the man who turned the established order upside-down in the 1600’s. Love him or loathe him, he’s possibly the most influential figure on British history.

Head of Mithras. A marble head from the Temple of Mithras, a Roman temple discovered just 15 minutes away form the museum itself. The Mithraic religion to the Roman’s was something of a secret cult, but Mithra himself is a Zoroastrian deity.  He is the God of Light, all-seeing, born of a virgin birth and offered salvation through sacrifice. This has led some people to suggest he might have been an inspiration for Jesus.

Charles Booth’s Map of Poverty. A ground-breaking sociological map of London, with each street coloured to represent 8 classes of society, providing a clear image of the geographical distribution of poverty in London.

Horniman Museum - Fæ

Horniman Museum

100 London Rd, London SE23 3PQ
020 8699 1872

Nearest Tube Station:
This is not the most accessible museum, hence why it’s not on many people’s radar- Forest Hill National Rail or Overground is the best way to get there. Trains run Victoria, London Bridge and the Shoreditch Overground branch.

Visit For:
A tiny version of the British Museum. A bit of everything, but all carefully selected. It’s a nice sized museum, and it also has some nice gardens if the weather isn’t too dismal.

Best Exhibits:
The Walrus. It isn’t always the case that a museum’s most famous exhibit is it’s best. But the stuffed walrus really is wonderful to see. Stuffed by someone who had clearly never seen a real-life walrus, with all it’s saggy skin, this walrus is stretched to breaking point and will put a smile on your face.

Mangle Boards. It’s not glamorous, but someone has to do the ironing. These beautiful boards are from Norway, and were carved in the 1600’s. They were often given as a wedding gift (to the bride, of course).

Mermaid. It’s not real. Sorry about that. It’s also hideous. Apparently Shinto followers have been making these for over a thousand years. Given Japan’s isolationist policies, they didn’t start to find their way out to the world until the 1800’s, when they were often marketed as real freaks, rather than creations.

Strange and Unusual

 Infant Aardvark - Emőke Dénes

Grant Museum of Zoology

Rockefeller Building, University College London
21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE
020 3108 2052

Nearest Tube Stations:
Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street, Goodge Street, Russel Square.

Visit For:
Specimens galore. This is a university museum, and is still used for teaching. The exhibits are skeletons or preserved animals, and are designed to teach biology and physiology. It’s worth visiting for a sense of the unreal, in the tiny room crammed with bodies, to admire some creatures and be repulsed by others (or bits of them at least).

Best Exhibits:
Jar of Moles. This really is little more than that, but much more fascinating than it should be. A jar, just stuffed full of moles.

Bisected Heads. A bizarre collection of bisected heads, preserved in fluid for all to see. It can make you feel quite funny about your own head after looking at these in any detail.

Joey. Not just any Joey either. No stuffed, fluffy cutie is this fellow. Rather, this is the preserved body of a very young Joey, still attached to the mothers nipple in the pouch. It’s really creepy.

Museum of the Order of St John

Museum of the Order Of St John

St John’s Gate, St John’s Lane, Clerkenwell, London, EC1M 4DA
020 7324 4005

Nearest Tube Stations:
Barbican, Farringdon or, at a push, Old Street.

Visit For:
While they may now be known best for providing first aid at public events, St John’s has a much older and more interesting history than you may think. Started by the Knights Hospitallers, the history of St John’s is that of crusades, knights and holy wars. The building itself is also beautiful, as it is in an original Tudor building.

Best Exhibits:
The Rhodes Missal. A 16th century illuminated manuscript from Rhodes.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Model. A beautifully detailed model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, made of olive wood and ivory inlay.

Sir john Soane's Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum

13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP
020 7405 2107

Nearest Tube Stations:
Holborn and Chancery Lane.

Visit For:
A peer through a cluttered mind! The house of Sir John Soane who died in 1837, and full of all his ephemera from his travels. Furniture, art, architecture, anthropology- everything is in his house, and everything in house is worth something.

Best Exhibits:
Mourning Ring. A gold locket ring with a lock of Napoleon’s hair. What a tasteful way to grieve.

Models. OK, so not a specific exhibit, but I love being able to look down on famous buildings like a giant, and his wife’s bedroom was filled with them after she died.

Honourable Mentions

Kew Steam and Water Museum:

Great museum, huge, as are many of it’s steam engine exhibits. Very family friendly, but a curiosity about steam is required at the very least.

The Hunterian:

Museum of surgery inside the Royal College of surgeons. Not the for the squemish, expect rows and rows of medical specimens and tools.

Imperial War Museum:

Less for guns, tanks and warships and more for an affecting overview of experiences of war, from both soldiers and civilians. If you want to run around and look at guns, you’re better off at the HMS Belfast. Not that there aren’t some tanks and planes here of course.

Greenwich Maritime Museum and the Old Royal Naval College:

Two museums, one location. Greenwich is great for day dashing between imposing and beautiful buildings, set out on rolling green lawns. The Painted Hall in the Royal Naval College is simply superb.

Bank of England Museum:

Only open Monday – Friday, except when it’s a bank holiday, it’s almost like this museum doesn’t want visitors. Well set up for a trip with children, this small museum gives an overview of the Bank’s history and of monetary theory. Not as boring as it should be.

V & A Museum of Childhood:

For some reason kept at arms length from the rest of the V & A, this museum is a great reason to head out to Bethnal Green. While probably better enjoyed with children, it’s still worth a visit without. It gives an overview of the changing concept of childhood through time and across cultures, and the temporary exhibits are usually quite fun.

The British Library:

The temporary (and expensive) exhibitions at the British Library are so big, impressive and well advertised, their permanent and free “Treasures of the British Library” exhibit is all too easy to miss. Including a Beowulf manuscript, Da Vinci manuscripts and a Gutenberg bible. The only downside is unless you read ancient languages, it doesn’t take too long to look around.