Ripley's Believe It or Not! The London Odditorium
Robert Leroy Ripley (1894 to 1949) started life as a cartoonist, drawing the bizarre under the by line “believe it or not!”. The cartoon became a regular in American papers in the early '20s. A book followed (the annual is popular and still available), then radio and TV shows and lecture tours. The first “amusement museum-type” attraction opened in Chicago in 1933 and there are now 30 museums worldwide.
Ripley became wealthy and was always eccentric and travelled the globe seeking the bizarre and extreme in nature, humanity and technology. He was a collector for William Randolph Hearst and the collection bears all the obsessive characteristics of the Citizen Kane film. I was expecting to find the sledge with the name Rosebud at some point.
The Odditorium makes a fantastic afternoon out for boys aged about eight to about 14. Starting on the fifth floor, you work your way down to the third floor, exiting through the thankfully small and relatively inexpensive gift shop. The tickets we had included entry to the Mirror Maze, which is better than the one at the London Dungeon and completely and wonderfully disorienting.
The collection includes items on the most extreme human forms (smallest, tallest, fattest), the largest and smallest of things (for example cars), the oldest things, the tiniest models (a coronation scene made of painted ants was a highlight) and the grotesque.
The style is somewhere between excellent modern museum presentation (with good interactive things) and the freak show at the Victorian circus, with accompanying showmanship. There is a lot to see and the place flows really well, with no possibility of getting lost and a welcome film break in the middle (featuring people putting nails and electric drills into their noses).
There is also a chamber of horrors style section with a macabre push the button and make the electric chair man fry feature (this does come with a bad taste warning). We particularly enjoyed the two way mirror where you get to see if you can roll your tongue and then later (and hilariously) get to watch others try through the mirror. It is educational in a bitty and unthemed way: the only real theme is the bizarre and extreme.
We had a fantastic time. Our boys, who are 10 and 12, said it was “sick” which pretty much summed it up. My only caveat was that it is quite expensive. Adults are £21.90, children £17.90 and a family of two adults and two children £69.80 (this includes a 10 per cent discount for buying online). The upside of this was that it was not too crowded, given that it is in the heart of tourist London.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, No1 Piccadilly Circus, London