A few years ago, I was traveling with the songwriters Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, opening up for their shows in Ireland and the U.K., and I bought one of those off-the-beaten-path guidebooks to London. I had wanted to walk around the East End and see all the Jack the Ripper stuff, but when I read about this place called the Sir John Soane’s Museum, I thought, I gotta see this.
Sir John Soane was apparently a very, very eccentric architect who designed the Bank of England. After that, he got it in his mind that he wanted to redesign the whole city of London, and he kept submitting new designs for, like, the Houses of Parliament. In some of those, he would show the current building in ruins around his proposed one—like it had been destroyed, and his new building had risen in its place—and the officials were like, “It’s OK, dude, we’re good. Got that Bank of England, that was fine, thank you.”
What’s great about the museum, which is in Soane’s house from the 18th and 19th centuries, is that it lets you see into this eccentric man’s mind. He was, let’s say, a hoarder, but with excellent taste. Back then, there was this idea of a cabinet of curiosities: People that were into esoterica and world travel would gather up a collection and create a thing called a cabinet, and you could go and look at it. That later led to the idea of museums. So Soane’s house is full of all the stuff that he collected over the years. There’s weird statuary, bits of Roman ruins, wall after wall just filled with these curiosities. There’s a room called the Red Room, which is just the most Satanic living room I’ve ever seen in real life. Imagine The Amityville Horror or The Shining but with beautiful design—like, genuinely appealing, as disturbing as it is. He built a crypt for his dog: this huge mausoleum… for his dog. The place is full of things like this. It has that feeling that someone put things together for their visual similarities rather than for any categorical relationship, kind of like a proto-Pinterest page.
The house is so overwhelming visually that at first I was just taken with it. Then, after I made a couple of passes, I went out front to get some air. I looked around, and I remember getting a look at the people who were coming in. It turns out that not only are you basically inside this strange man’s mind, but the museum is also this wonderful magnet to all of these present-day London eccentrics. It’s like if you go to the Downtown LA library right when it opens in the morning, and you see all of the weirdos there, clutching their manifestos to their chests as they go in to read and research. There’s something so beautiful about that, and in London a similar kind of eccentric gets drawn to the John Soane’s house. There was a guy in, like, Robin Hood gear. A lot of monks’ robes, all kinds of druids and Wiccans and witches. I started following some of the individual people inside, and it became clear that many of them were living on the edge of experience in a very beautiful way. I went in the morning, and I didn’t leave until the afternoon, because I was so taken by the people who were there. I just loved it. Besides being amazed by all of it, I also had to think: A guy lived here. A guy woke up and ate his breakfast here, amid… this. I’m telling you, get there in the morning, let the thing wash over you, hang out for a bit, and then start people watching. It’s fantastic.
Patton Oswalt stars in Magnolia Pictures’ I Love My Dad, in theaters August 5 and on-demand August 12. His latest Netflix special, We All Scream, premieres September 20.