The Most Curious Wonders to Discover on Museum Mile this Summer
Wondering how to keep the kids entertained this summer holiday? Look no further than Museum Mile – an intriguing collection of 13 extraordinary museums spanning from King’s Cross to the River Thames and across Camden. From the world’s most famous museums to charming smaller ones, there are wonders to find with every step. We’ve picked out some of the most curious ones for you to discover, which are sure to pique the interest of young minds, all summer long.
1. A gruesome ‘mermaid’ at the British Museum
Said to have been caught in Japan during the 18th century, this curious cryptid (an animal whose existence is questionable) is made from a monkey’s head with a fish tail, supported in the centre with wood. Such curiosities were popular with collectors and sideshow exhibitors in Europe, where tales of exotic lands and mythical creatures roused great curiosity. See this extraordinary piece of taxidermy for yourself in the Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery.
2. A beak of a giant squid at the British Library
Free admission to the library, charges apply for the exhibition.
In the world’s largest library, you’d expect to find millions of books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers and magazines. But would you expect to find a specimen in a jar?
It’s 250 years since James Cook and his crew set sail on the Endeavour from Plymouth. In the British Library’s current exhibition James Cook: The Voyages, you can see maps, artworks and journals from Cook’s three world-changing voyages. Hundreds of objects were collected by Cook and the many men that sailed with him, including this beak of a giant squid brought back by Sir Joseph Banks from James Cook’s voyage of 1768-71. The specimen is on loan from fellow Museum Mile venue the Hunterian Museum, currently closed for redevelopment, so be sure to visit the exhibition this summer, before it closes on 28 August.
3. Colonel Gardner’s tartan turban at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS
The Tartan Turban in this portrait belonged to Colonel Alexander Haughton Campbell Gardner (1785–1877), a Scottish-American traveller, soldier and mercenary who served Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the ‘Napoleon of the East’ known as the Lion of Punjab, who reigned the Sikh Empire (1799–1849) for 40 years. Gardner was a controversial figure whose exploits were so bizarre that the geographer Sir Henry Yule disbelieved them, and his journey featured in the 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King. See this and over 100 dazzling objects in the current Empire of the Sikhs exhibition which tells the story of how British rule in India almost ended. On until 23 September.
Portrait by George Landseer (1834-78), Kashmir, c.1865-70
4. UCL Grant Museum of Zoology’s jar of moles
One of the most bizarre objects in the UCL Grant Museum’s collection is a large jar crammed full of whole preserved moles! No one quite knows why 18 moles are jam packed into what looks like a sweetie jar – perhaps it was to store a large number of specimens (by storing several specimens together it cuts costs, and makes transporting them easier), for a dissection class – one mole for each student, or they may have belonged to a researcher studying the anatomy of moles. Whatever the reason, they make for a most curious find. Be sure to see the moles, and for budding zoologists there are zoology hands-on workshops on throughout the summer.
5. Charles Dickens Museum’s copy of Barnaby Rudge bound in prison wood
At 48 Doughty Street, the only home of Charles Dickens that is open to the public, you can find this copy of Barnaby Rudge, bound in wood salvaged from Newgate Prison. Dickens was fascinated with prisons and often visited them in London and when he travelled abroad. He went on to use the prison as a location in several of his novels – Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.
The person who customised this copy of Barnaby Rudge, had picked up wood from a demolition sale at the closure of the prison. He then sculpted the cover of the book with wood from beams that had been burnt during the Gordon Riots in 1790 - a historical event that features in the novel.
6. The Library and Museum of Freemasonry’s Masonic Pipe Tamper
This 19th century ivory tobacco pipe tamper is in the form of a lady’s leg, complete with a carved garter that doubles as a grip, and the masonic insignia of compass and setsquare etched in the base. Used for pressing tobacco into the pipe, and cleaning out burnt tobacco, it is an intriguing expression for a gentleman’s functional object. Freemasons loved to decorate all manner of everyday items from jewellery to ceramics and furniture with the masonic insignia. This fine example was donated to the museum by John P. Houghton, from the Lodge of Progress.
7. Teeth at the Wellcome Collection
There’s no need to grin and bear the summer with the Wellcome Collection’s perfectly pain-free exhibition Teeth. From tooth fairies to our pursuit of the perfect smile there are over 150 objects, images and artworks exploring everything to do with our gnashers. It’s true that we are never more aware of our teeth than when we are children and our baby teeth wobble and fall out. The elusive Tooth Fairy goes by many names. Letters posing questions, seeking reimbursement or offering excuses sometimes even get a reply. See a selection of these letters from across the decades, then encourage young ones to submit theirs for inclusion. On until 16 September.
8. Sir John Soane’s Museum’s Picture Room
Though at first sight this room might seem little more than a densely-packed gallery, the Picture Room hides a delightful secret: its walls are in fact secret doors that open to reveal more paintings beyond. Hidden behind one wall is Hogarth’s famous The Rake’s Progress series of paintings, whilst the other side reveals a hidden balcony that looks down into the crypts below. These secret doors are opened throughout the day, allowing visitors to discover the paintings behind.
9. Comic capers at the Cartoon Museum
The Cartoon Museum is has a host of creative workshops for kids this summer – perfect for them to create their own cartoon or comic strip based on the curious wonders they’ve seen on Museum Mile. From cut-out animation and Claymation to Manga heroes and villains, superheroes and fantastic beasties, there’s plenty to keep young minds and hands active. Advanced booking required.
10. The Foundling Museum Pyx
This 1946 silver pyx (a small container used in the Catholic, Old Catholic and Anglican Churches to carry the consecrated host) is one of those more curious items in the Foundling Museum's Collection, mostly because it was found with Communion wafers still inside. The wafers were bagged and are currently still in the Museum's storage!
Also on Museum Mile…
Don’t miss nearby Camden neighbours the London Transport Museum who are running curiosity-quelling Great Summer of Engineering events until 3 September, with a different transport challenge every week exploring steam, electricity and design. It’s also your last chance to visit the Courtauld Gallery, before it closes for 2 years in September. Here you can find iconic works by some of the world’s most famous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters; Manet, Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and more.