Book Review: Little-Known Museums In and Around London (Rachel Kaplan) : BH

8/12/2001 • British Heritage Book Reviews, Florence Nightingale

Little-Known Museums In and Around London, by Rachel Kaplan, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. $19.95, paperback, 1997.

Little-Known Museums In and Around London, like Rachel Kaplan’s earlier volume about the often-overlooked museums of Paris, takes readers on a personal tour of fascinating special-interest collections. Kaplan’s latest book highlights 30 such galleries and exhibit halls, dedicated to such diverse, and sometimes quirky, subjects as bank notes, prison life, gardening, automata, and surgery. The selection of museums also includes several dedicated to the lives of outstanding men and women of letters, the visual arts, and the sciences.

But what makes this guidebook a treat is not just Kaplan’s careful choice of museums to feature, but the depth of her research and obvious pleasure in relating stories associated with each of the sites. She doesn’t neglect any of the practical, need-to-know details every guidebook should include–hours, location, fees, telephone numbers, and a general description of what you’ll see when you walk through the door–but in addition to this she also takes on the role of tour guide, allowing armchair-bound readers to enjoy many of the same stories they might hear told by on-the-spot curators and guides. These anecdotes include hair-raising accounts of prison life in Southwark’s Clink Prison; of the horrific prospect of facing surgery without anaesthetics at Old St. Thomas’s Operating Theatre, and of the more reassuring sight of Florence Nightingale making her rounds at Scutari, a scene re-created at London’s Florence Nightingale Museum.

We also get a glimpse into the lives of well-known Londoners through Kaplan’s descriptions of the less famous museums that preserve the details of their lives. The private lives of Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and others are commemorated in numerous small museums throughout London and the surrounding country, and provide the necessary point of departure for more fun and chatty revelations about the idiosyncracies of these revered figures of the past.

As a result this guidebook not only serves London travellers well, but also makes a fine alternative for folks who can’t get there themselves. After reading through these descriptions, they’ll know these museums so well that they’ll be liable to forget that they never left home.

Bruce Heydt