Our pick of 10 of the London museums every history lover needs to visit
History buffs, you’re in good company in London: the city boasts some of the world’s best historical collections.
London museums offer a whole host of exhibitions and displays that shed light on stories of the past, all recounting different histories in their unique way.
From Tudor palaces to ancient Egyptian mummies, via the world’s oldest book and millions of years-old dinosaurs, these are the museums that will give you your history fix in London.
Prehistoric history: the Natural History Museum
The beginning of humanity would be a pretty good place to begin a London history tour, but the Natural History Museum goes even further than that. From a 147 million year-old Archaeopteryx fossil to a stuffed Dodo, via pigeons owned by Charles Darwin, here you can get up close and personal with pretty much any species imaginable. If that’s not enough, gazing up at the 25 metre-long skeleton of a magnificent blue whale is a pretty great way to make an entrance.
SW7 5BD; nhm.ac.uk
Ancient history: the British Museum
The British Museum’s global reputation is largely down to its extraordinary (and, in some cases, somewhat controversial) array of artefacts from ancient civilisations, including the largest collection of ancient Egyptian objects outside of Egypt itself. Alongside the 120 mummies and the Rosetta Stone, you’ll also find the Parthenon sculptures from ancient Greece, sculpted reliefs of lion hunts from ancient Assyria, turquoise Aztec masks and mosaics from Roman Britain.
WC1B 3DG; britishmuseum.org
Tudor History: Hampton Court Palace
It’s not quite a museum, but Hampton Court Palace is arguably something much better. A historical artefact in itself, the home of Henry VIII is a perfect place to immerse yourself in Tudor history, with visitors permitted to roam pretty much anywhere, from the Great Hall to the palace’s kitchens. Be careful as you peruse the Gallery: this is where the ghost of Henry’s fifth wife Catherine Howard is said to reside, as it was where she found out she was likely to be beheaded.
KT8 9AU; hrp.org.uk
Georgian history: Sir John Soane’s Museum
When it comes to historic houses, there are few that are better preserved than that of Sir John Soane. The famous architect decreed that his home and its content would become a museum after he died, meaning visitors can spend hours snooping around the stunning Georgian home, which he designed. Soane was a fervent collector too, so inside you’ll find everything from bits of an Egyptian tomb to paintings by JMW Turner. You can also visit his summer residence in Ealing, Pitzhanger Manor, a showcase for all of his architectural innovations.
WC2A 3BP; soane.org
Victorian history: Ragged School Museum
It was a hard knock life for many Victorian children. Dr Barnardo knew this, and began setting up homes for poor children in London. This museum occupies the site of the Ragged School founded by the philanthropist in 1877, and its star exhibit is the old school room, preserved as it was during the Victorian era, which frequently hosts school trips; children can experience a day in the life of a 19th century child. Victorian enthusiasts can also head to the Charles Dickens Museum on Doughty Street near King’s Cross and the Old Operating Theatre in the garrett of St Thomas’s Church, Southwark to find similar immersive experiences. The museum was closed for a major refurbishment, but has been reopening in stages since January 2023.
E3 4RR; raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk
Maritime history: National Maritime Museum
Want to turn yourself from a landlubber to a salty sea dog? Short of actually getting on a boat, the National Maritime Museum is a good place to start, with hundreds of years of British naval history under its roof, and artefacts including the coat Nelson was wearing when he was fatally wounded, and Yinka Shonibare’s Ship In A Bottle, which was placed on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth in 2010.
SE10 9NF; rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum
Conflict history: Imperial War Museum
War comes with violence and tragedy which should never be forgotten. This was the thinking behind the creation of the Imperial War Museum (IWM), which opened after the end of the First World War, intended as a means for promoting world peace. While conflicts continue to rage across the globe, the IWM has become a museum that chronicles how war has changed over the last century. From a gleaming Spitfire to a news agency Land Rover from Gaza, and a harrowing exhibition on the Holocaust, there are objects in this museum you’ll never forget.
SE1 6HZ; iwm.org.uk
Black British history: Black Cultural Archives
When historian Len Garrison opened the Black Cultural Archives in 1981, the Brixton museum became the first – and is still the only – facility dedicated to chronicling the history of African and Caribbean communities in Britain. A contemporary museum, its work goes beyond the preservation of historical materials, but is also focused on putting on talks and events for discussion of current issues.
SW2 1EF; blackculturalarchives.org
Literary history: British Library
This museum is quite literally one for the history books – 25 million of them to be precise. All in all, the British Library is home to some 150 million items, from manuscripts to maps, and from newspapers to musical scores. Among them you’ll find the Magna Carta and Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, as well as many literary treasures including original manuscripts of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, and the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest dated printed book.
NW1 2DB; bl.uk
Design history: V&A
A homage to all things decorative, innovative and well-designed, the Victoria and Albert Museum houses stunning examples of craft and artistry ranging from the world’s oldest dated carpet (the rather stunning Ardabil carpet) to African fashion spanning the mid-20th century, global ceramics and theatre posters.
SW7 2RL; vam.ac.uk