South London's Best Unsung Museums

By Scott Wood Last edited 12 months ago
South London's Best Unsung Museums

We all love the walrus and other beasts stuffed into the Horniman Museum and the nautical delights of Greenwich’s Maritime Museum, but south London has plenty of other museums hanging around the edges of parks and loitering down side streets. We’ve found a few beyond zone 1 to sing about including, we think, London’s most obscure museum. We know there are more out there, so do please share other unsung south London museums that you're a fan of in the comments.

Bethlem Museum of the Mind

Artist Grayson Perry at the opening of Bethlem Museum of the Mind, 2015

Opened by Grayson Perry in March 2015, the Bethlem Museum of the Mind is placed within the current location for the Bethlem Royal Hospital, historically known as Bedlam.

Visitors are greeted by statues that once lay above the old doors of the hospital, depicting the Victorian idea of madness. One gazes inanely, the other is chained and tormented.

Straight-jackets and medicine bottles are on display but the overall emphasis of the museum is on the lives and creativity of people within the mental health system and the places, good or bad, that they occupy in the wider world. Everything here is presented with sensitivity and respect for the troubled souls who have passed through Bedlam and other institutions.

It's a lot about the art: from jittery monochrome scratchings to glorious psychedelic portraits. Among the mostly unsung artists are some famous images and names: Richard Dadd’s androgynous Crazy Jane hangs here, along with a number of Louis Wain’s magnificently mad cat images. Our own favourite in the collection is the mystical, incredibly detailed charcoals of Vonn Stropp’s The Five.

Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Bethlem Royal Hospital, Monks Orchard Road, Beckenham, Kent BR3 3BX.

The Cinema Museum

A feature off a street, then off another street, near the Elephant and Castle is the Cinema Museum. It's mostly a museum of cinemas themselves, their history and architecture, lighting, seating, carpets as well as the uniforms their staff wore (with so many shiny buttons).

There's also cinematic ephemera: the collection began with co-founder Ronald Grant’s lobby card collection, including posters, classic style 3D glasses and other pieces of film history. Alongside the cinema history, these carry with them a history of branding and design.

The museum also has its own cinema which hosts regular screenings and events — keep an eye on the website for upcoming events.

The Cinema Museum, The Master’s House, 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London SE11 4TH.

Wimbledon Windmill Museum and the Museum of Wimbledon

Photo by Daniel in the Londonist Flickr pool

The Wimbledon Windmill Museum nestles among the bushes and shrubs of Wimbledon Common. You can drive there but the museum is best approached on foot from Wimbledon Village across the common — and back, when one's thirst for knowledge is sated, and one can quench other thirsts in one of Wimbledon’s apex pubs.

Before that though, you can immerse yourself in the diorama depicting the construction of the windmill around 1817 and the general exhibition of windmills, milling and bread making. The windmill also has a cabinet dedicated to Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell's seminal Scouting for Boys, which was partly written within the windmill.

We’re also amazed to learn that in the nearby melee of Wimbledon Village, a place that makes Clapham Common look down-at-heel, the Museum of Wimbledon still exists which takes visitors from the Iron Age to the 20th century.

Wimbledon Windmill Museum, Windmill Road, Wimbledon Common, London SW19 5NR.

Museum of Wimbledon, Museum of Wimbledon 22 Ridgway, London SW19 4QN.

Crystal Palace Museum

Photo by Matt Brown in the Londonist Flickr pool

A museum on the edge of another famous London green space is the Crystal Palace Museum, perching on Anerley Hill palace near Crystal Palace station. It is dedicated to the history of the park, from before the depositing of the Palace on Sydenham Hill in 1854 and after its destruction by fire in 1936.

Melted glass that, according to local lore, ran like a river down the hill as Crystal Palace burned, is on display. The museum also has a history of events from the park including the strange and wonderful daytime fireworks displays, and a kite that flies out of a small hand grenade, as far as we can make out.

They, among other wonders there, are a good piece of forgotten social history. Another great thing about the Crystal Palace Museum is that, once you’ve explored the history and examined the artefacts you can go straight out into the park to explore the place where all this fun stuff happened.

Crystal Palace Museum, Anerley Hill, SE19 2BA.

The Museum of Croydon

Photo by Homemade in the Londonist Flickr pool

No sniggering you. Croydon has a long and fascinating human history — look, stop it — which is depicted in the Clock Tower museum.

The Riesco room mixes ancient and antique Chinese ceramics from Riesco's collection with Anglo-Saxon and Roman finds from under Croydon's streets, like the bronze wheel and glass beaker found in the Saxon cemetery on Eldridge Road.

The 'Then' gallery upstairs has some astonishing pieces from Croydon in the 19th century, and touch-screens give detail and context to each piece. Exhibits include Captain Fitzroy's iguana from 1835. Fitzroy was the captain of The Beagle, the ship that Bromley boy Charles Darwin traveled aboard as he developed his theory of evolution. Being a devout Christian, Fitzroy felt betrayed by his friend's writings, retiring with his stuffed iguana to Upper Norwood in 1865.

There is also a pipe from the Norwood to Croydon Atmospheric Railway, and a pottery souvenir of Nellie Chapman, the Lion Queen of Croydon, who performed at the Croydon Fair in the mid 19th century. She is depicted with lion and leopard.

There's plenty more cultural ephemera in the museum so don’t be put off by what we spotted, including books by Croydon-born sex researcher Henry Havelock Ellis, an unexploded bomb shell from the second world war, some Bridget Riley op-art, 'Trojan' bubble car and exhibits dedicated to extraordinary people who have lived, loved and made a difference in Croydon: drills, glasses, books. The’Now’ gallery is in the nearly now. It's a fine example of what a local museum could and should be.

Museum of Croydon, Central Library, Croydon Clocktower, Katharine Street, Croydon CR9 1ET.

Soseki in London Museum

Soseki in London Museum. Photo Sid Rodrigues

We're fairly sure this is London's least-known museum. Dedicated to the writer Natsume Soseki, famous in his native Japan but pretty much unknown in the UK, the museum is a flat on a residential street in Clapham.

The museum is opposite a house Soseki lodged in between 1901-1902 and is more a shrine to the writer than a museum. There's a recreation of his personal library, photographs of early 20th century London places and events that Soseki visited, a bust to the writer, a huge painting and some depictions of Soseki travelling London and the UK.

The descriptions for each image, by the way, are in Japanese, though there is an English guide sheet available. Of roughly 800 visitors per year, around 600 are from Japan. To get into the museum there is a small sign by the buzzer and one passes by discarded Crocs and bicycles and other things one typically finds littering a London communal hallway. This museum is certainly off the beaten track.

In the illustrations Soseki mainly looks dismayed and alienated by his surroundings, and he did describe his two years in London as the most unpleasant of his life. Nevertheless, he did do some fine writing here — his The Tower of London is, to the western reader, a brilliantly deranged gothic travelogue.

The museum itself is a more peaceful place — mainly down to the warm greetings and enthusiasm of Yoshi, who looks after it. Curious visitors will be rewarded. Be warned though, curious people, the museum closes in September 2017. Make your way while you can.

Soseki in London Museum, 80 The Chase, London SW4 0NG.

Last Updated 14 October 2016

John Woodhouse

Bethlem is well worth a visit! As is Crystal Palace and Croydon.