During the 18th and early 19th Centuries, collecting unusual objects was a common occupation among the learned, monied classes. A gentleman wasn't a gentleman unless his study contained the skull of a minke whale, say, or the knuckle bones of assorted primates. London, at the heart of a rich and exotic empire, became the world epicentre for eccentric collections and museums. A few, such as the largely arts-based Sir John Soane's Museum, survive today. Many have long vanished.
A new exhibition, across the road from John Soane's in the even more beguiling Hunterian, traces the fate of seven vanished museums. From William Bullock's Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly to the remarkable collection of Sir Hans Sloane, whose acquisitions contributed to the foundation of both the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. Even the Hunterian's own collection is largely lost, thanks to enemy action in the Second World War. A direct hit destroyed two-thirds of the collection, including the skeleton of London's most famous elephant.
It's not the largest of exhibitions. You can adequately see and study everything in 20 minutes. But it opens the eyes to some long-forgotten tourist attractions from the days when clutter was something to be cherished.
The associated events are also worth checking out (not least because we're hosting a 'lost London' quiz to coincide — now fully booked). Next Tuesday, Sam Alberti discusses how museums come to be 'lost' in the first place. Ebullient Egyptologist John J Johnston talks about unrolling mummies on 23 March. A talk on bodysnatching and its interplay with anatomy comes from Elizabeth Hurren on 26 April. And as a final treat, Philip Davies of English Heritage takes us through images of lost London, from last year's hugely impressive tome of the same name.
London's Lost Museums runs at the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields until 2 July. Entrance is free.