Take a Trip to Sir John Soane’s
There are more than 240 museums in London, so it’s no surprise some of them have a habit of falling under the radar. Most visitors to the capital will be perfectly content with trips to world-class names like the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert and the Tate Modern, while many Londoners will possess an undeniably cult favorite like the Cartoon Museum, the British Postal Archive or the Magic Circle Museum. But there’s one London museum that fits into both camps – that has both greatness and obscurity in equal measure. It’s called Sir John Soane’s Museum.
Located in the Holborn district of the capital and having been open to the public for almost 200 years, Sir John Soane’s Museum has been called the greatest house museum in the world – and it’s easy to see why. With a vast collection of random artifacts from across the globe, all housed in a beautiful old building (or two), it’s difficult to believe that it’s all the work of just one man.
He was called Sir John Soane, in case you haven’t guessed, and he was a 19th century architect. And not just any old architect – in his day, he was one of the world’s most celebrated exponents of the Neo-classical style and was responsible for some of Britain’s finest buildings, including the nearby Bank of England. But he saved his best work for his own doorstep, undertaking a truly mammoth project to transform his own home, along with his neighbors’ homes, into a modern architectural masterpiece that was ideal for housing his vast, varied collection of cultural curios.
In 1833, Soane obtained an Act of Parliament to bequeath his house (which now incorporated three separate addresses) and the collection therein to the nation, so when he died in 1837 it was opened to the public. And it was only then that people realized quite how special the place was. As well as being a love letter to British architecture, Soane’s private collection boasts the kind of artifacts that would make the British Museum proud: from the sarcophagus of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I to a series of Roman bronzes from Pompeii to a world-class collection Hogarth paintings.
The museum boasts a truly eclectic collection of stuff – including architectural models, antiques, furniture, fabrics, timepieces, first-edition books and more besides – all of which was personally collected by Soane on his travels. But what is especially interesting about the collection is the utter lack of discrimination or organization. This is a place where the priceless and the worthless co-exist: where Canaletto and Turner paintings hang beside amateur drawings of the pet dog.
With a small staff and a relatively low turnover (the entrance is free) this tiny house museum is unlikely to challenge the British Museum for supremacy any time soon. But with an increasing number of visitors coming to appreciate the unique combination of world-class exhibits and quirky charm, it’s only a matter of time before Sir John Soane’s Museum steps out of the shadows to become one of London’s leading lights.