A Time Capsule in London

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An employee opens 'secret' panels displaying paintings by Hogarth, at the Sir John Soane's Museum in London, U.K.

With its cluttered spaces, dark alcoves and whiff of eccentricity, Sir John Soane's Museum looks as though it were conceived by the set designers of Raiders of the Lost Ark, working in tandem with a bevy of Georgian dandies. Set incongruously amid the legal offices of London's Lincoln's Inn Fields, the building was once the home of its namesake, the great neoclassical architect and hoarder of sculpture, plaster casts, pictures, rare books and cool stuff in general. An act of Parliament declared the house a public museum upon Soane's death in 1837, fulfilling his wishes.

Today, it is "an incredible time capsule," says Tim Knox, director of the museum. "It's like a place where time has stopped." Frozen forever is the heyday of the great English collectors — a period when gentlemen of learning thought nothing of shipping over an Egyptian sarcophagus and keeping it in the basement. (And there, indeed, is the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, one of the most important Egyptian antiquities ever discovered, lying in Soane's cellar.) Noteworthy displays include Roman stonework, thousands of architectural drawings, William Hogarth's series of paintings A Rake's Progress, works by Canaletto and mountains of neoclassical sculpture. Best of all, the fact that Sir John Soane's Museum isn't on the usual tourist trail means that it is almost never crowded. Got a rainy afternoon in London to spare? Here's the place to head for.

Sir John Soane's Museum is open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. See soane.org.

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