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Unusual London: A Photo Tour of Seven Astonishing Places

Last month a small team from the Atlas Obscura (Dylan Thuras and myself, Michelle Enemark) had the incredible opportunity to spend a last-minute, whirlwind week in London in preparation for Field Trip Day, coming up on August 24 (it promises to be delightful, register to attend here).

While most of the time was spent exploring the corners and alleys of East London for Field Trip Day, we are travelers who insist on packing in as much as possible and running around until the tears of exhaustion can no longer be held back. Neither of us had been to London since we were teenagers and we did our best to make up for the oversight this trip, seeing as many of London’s great curious places and collections as we could. Here are a few of our favorites:

GRANT MUSEUM OF ZOOLOGY

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A highlight was definitely the Grant Museum of Zoology.

article-imageMaximalist displays from the 1830s make it the perfect place to lose hours in.

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Comparative anatomy, aka lots of brains.

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Various articulated skeletons watch over museum goers from the second floor gallery.

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Atlas-adopted python head

The Grant Museum has an “adopt a specimen” program — patrons choose a specimen to sponsor, pay a small sum which goes towards supporting the museum, and receive a small “sponsored by” sign. While the signs can be a bit distracting to the aesthetic of this gorgeous old collection, I commend the museum’s clever thinking — the small sense of ownership over the collection gives donors a personal connection to it, and the museum encourages them to renew with their adopted child every year.

After a good 30 minutes of deliberation, Atlas Obscura adopted the floating python head pictured above. Most of the more spectacular specimens had already been claimed, but we fell in love with the odd choice to preserve just the head of this guy. And that face… or is this a case of a face only a mother could love?

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article-imageInside the Micrarium

The Micrarium, perhaps my favorite spot in all of London, is a magical room of backlit microscope slides in a old closet space at the Grant Museum of Zoology

article-imageThe Micrarium

THE OLD OPERATING THEATRE

article-imageOld Operating Theatre

This is the Old Operating Theatre, where patients were operated on for an audience of surgeons as early as 1822 — before anesthetic.

article-imageHerb Garrett

Here’s the Old Operating Theatre’s Herb Garrett, an old apothecary connected to the Theatre.

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A random collection of medical specimens on display in the Herb Garrett

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Nurse’s Chatelaine

Details from a Nurse’s Chatelaine — these were belts worn by the lady of the household, holding everything she might need. While these belts began solely as utilitarian items, they later became more of a fashion item, as seen by the ornate thimble, whistle, and scissors above.

JEREMY BENTHAM’S AUTO-ICON

article-imageJeremy Bentham’s auto-icon

We had a bit of a time locating Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon. He is tucked at the end of a corridor in one of the many wings of UCL London. Students streamed by without so much of a glance at their very own mummy. Though the grotesquely mummified head of this preserved moral philospoher (whose will set out specific instructions to the preservation and display of his body) has been replaced by a wax likeness, the body under his clothing is indeed his skeleton.

article-imageJeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon - EXTREME WAX FACE CLOSE-UP

HIGHGATE CEMETERY

article-imagePath in Highgate Cemetery

We arrived at Highgate Cemetery expecting crumbling Victorian gravestones and statues half overtaken by nature. It did not disappoint.

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Angel in Highgate

The cemetery is equal parts eerie and beautiful. It is both moody and calming.

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article-imageHighgate Cemetery’s Victorian residents are putting down roots.

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HORNIMAN MUSEUM

article-imageDisplay in the Horniman Museum

The Horniman Museum is a bit of a trek, but well worth the effort. Philanthropist Frederick John Horniman was a prolific collector of ethnographic and natural history objects. He left his collections, beautiful home, and extensive gardens to the public as a free museum, and it remains so today.

The natural history displays especially attracted my lens. Many of the displays seemed reminiscent of 1950s mid-century design.

article-imageEach display is wonderfully visual.

article-imagePuss Moth display

Some displays, like the life-cycle of the Puss Moth, seem to have been inspired by 50’s and 60’s textbook illustrations.

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The pastel colors of the museum walls are a perfect backdrop for its collections.

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Half-skeleton bird

There were a number of these great half-taxidermy, half-skeleton preparations.

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WELLCOME COLLECTION

article-imageProsthetic arms in the Wellcome Colleciton

I felt that the Wellcome Collection & Library left a lot to be desired as far as displays went — every object sat on red fabric, most in big square displays that kept you circling around in big loops all over the museum. It was a bit upsetting after awhile.

However, the objects themselves are world class and wonderfully curated, so I was willing to overlook the museum design. Please excuse the eye-burning hue of the following photos. Above is a collection of artificial limbs.

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Charles Darwin’s walking stick!

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Napoleon’s fancy toothbrush!

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A magnificent Scottish ram’s head snuff container!

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Human teeth dentist sign

I loved this Chinese dentist’s office sign, hung with human teeth.

article-imageGorgeous 18th century wax anatomical model, with disembodied hand!

VIKTOR WYND’S LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS

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Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors

Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors, part of Field Trip Day, is an impressive curio shop tucked away in East London.

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Shop wares

The curation of the shop is very wunderkammer — microscope slides next to eggs next to ivory lobsters next to stone fruit, next to trilobites. Anything goes.

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Mummified Marmoset

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Many a head

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Taxidermy friend

I wish I could have taken this guy home with me. 

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A disintegrating anatomical model (I think? It’s a bit too far gone to be sure)

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The shopkeep and his lion in their finest headwear.

We visited a number of other wonderful places where I was not permitted to take photos. Among them, I most highly recommend Denis Sever’s House, Sir John Soane’s Museum, and the Hunterian Museum.