7 Strange Museums Preserving British Heritage

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Last week, The Independent ran a cheeky photo series on things that make Britain great "“ like blankets, Wimpy Burgers, and pigeons. The series, which was primarily lifted from a forthcoming book called We're British, Innit by Iain Aitch, did not mention Marmite, which seems a shame, because it is so singularly British, not to mention brown. But the book did mention corner shops, which also seems a shame, because where in the world aren't there corner shops? In any case, the exercise in ironic self-appraisement got me thinking about a few of the other testaments to British heritage and identity, namely the museums. And while they're certainly not as outré, perhaps, as "dogging" (you may want to be careful in looking this one up), or as prosaic as a Thermos, there are definitely some weird ones out there.

1. The British Lawnmower Museum, Southport

Its tagline is "It's Mower Interesting." What more could you possibly want from a lawnmower museum? People in this country absolutely love their gardens and their lawns, so a lawnmower museum is the natural extension of that love and, dare we say it, obsession. This particular museum not only repairs vintage machines and includes exhibits from the time before lawnmowers, but it also houses the world's largest collection of toy lawnmowers.

2. The Leeds Castle Dog Collar Museum

Another thing that British people really like? Dogs. However, this particular museum isn't devoted to dogs, rather, dog fashions: It houses Britain's only collection of dog collars, featuring more than 100 collars and spanning centuries.

3. The Foundling Museum

Orphans have long been the subject of romantic books, movies, and stories, so much so that without them, the Disney franchise could never have achieved the world domination it now enjoys (from Cinderella and Snow White to Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Disney's been dealing in orphans since time began). So it's only fitting that here in London, where orphans really first made a name for themselves through the works of Charles Dickens, that they get a museum. The museum is dedicated to the history of the Foundling Hospital, London's first home for orphans and abandoned children, opened in 1739, and to the many children who passed through its doors.

4. The Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool

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A maritime museum is certainly not in the least bit strange, and can be a fascinating exploration of seafaring history. But this particular museum also houses the "Seized! Revenue and Customs Uncovered" collection, a sort of sub-museum entirely devoted to the weird stuff that people have used to try to get drugs and exotic animals through customs. Like garden gnomes.

5. The British Optical Association Museum

What could be more fun on vacation than models of eye disease? Absolutely nothing. This particular collection houses eyewear from centuries past, from pince-nez to opera glasses, goggles to contact lenses, as well as the aforementioned models of eye disease. It's open by appointment only, so if you're an ocular enthusiast, bear that in mind.

6. Pollock's Toy Museum

toy-museum.jpgLocated in two adjoined 18th century buildings, this museum houses a collection of Victorian and later era toys, including miniature printed theatres, which were very popular back in the days before television and with the budding drama student. While a museum dedicated to toys, specifically Victorian toys, isn't so weird, there's something undeniably creepy about the hordes of dolls and teddies, with their dead glassy eyes and distant, stoic expressions. Because they obviously come to life in the night to have tea parties and whisper homicidal thoughts into your ear.

7. Museum of Witchcraft, Cornwall

dagger-doll.jpgIt's a bit like Salem, Mass., but with fewer wax sculptures, tarot card readers and Neopagan "witches." The Museum of Witchcraft was opened in 1951 by one Cecil Williamson, a man who had had a long and fruitful relationship with witchcraft. Whilst in his youth, he saved a young witch from some local thugs; she, in turn, taught him a few things about the mystical arts. Later, while at prep school, Cecil again made friends with the local witch, who taught him a few spells that he used effectively against some school bullies. According to his biography on the museum's website, he was later in life approached by the MI6 to work as an undercover agent gathering information on the occult interests of head Nazi personnel during World War II. And that was just the beginning. The Museum, which Cecil started and owned until 1996, shortly before his death at age 90, features some fascinating exhibits, including a voodoo type doll that has "real pubic hair sewn into it" and bears a dagger in its abdomen, a wooden witch mirror, and a ceramic figurine of Mother Goose riding a broom. And remember, this museum comes with a warning: "People with Children of a sensitive disposition are warned that some of the exhibits are controversial."

April 20, 2009 - 10:18am
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