Sophie Campbell takes us on a tour around Britain’s museums
The ‘Wonder House’, they called it – the great museum that opened the story in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim. ‘Anybody who sought wisdom could ask the curator to explain’, wrote Kipling, describing the people hurrying there ‘to see things made in their own province and elsewhere’.
Kipling’s idea is still relevant today. What better description than ‘Wonder House’ as you enter the mighty portals of the British Museum to see its displays, or gaze at ‘living fossils’ swimming around on the ceiling of the Etches Collection in Dorset, or catch giggling schoolchildren with clipboards in their local museums?
The British Museum is where it all starts, with the government’s purchase of Sir Hans Sloane’s generous bequest of manuscripts, coins, bibelots, books and natural specimens – the fruits of a lifetime’s collecting – for around a quarter of their value. An Act of Parliament in 1753 established it as the world’s first national public museum, open to all ‘studious and curious persons’.
(Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, opened in 1683, is technically the world’s first modern museum, but is a university collection).
The Empire, with its wealth and geographical reach, sucked in so many treasures that a vast new Wonder House – the current British Museum building – was completed in the 1830s. Today the UK has more than 30 national museums established by Acts of Parliament, either individually or in groups. As for the provenance of objects, how freighted that has become, quite rightly. It’s a hugely complex subject, so for the moment let’s just enjoy the crazy breadth and depth of our museums in England and Wales; not only the giants with collections of international quality but displays born of private obsessions, local passions, the desire to remember.
Anyone else mourning the loss of the Bakelite Museum in Somerset? Or delighted by the Northumberland telephone box that tells the story of Flodden – just one in a constellation of sites known as an Eco Museum?
There are several clusters of museums, brilliant if you’re really interested in something and can spend a while exploring. Hadrian’s
Wall Country stretches from Tyneside’s Segudunum to Senhouse Roman Fort on the Solway Firth; Ironbridge Gorge comprises seven sites running along the River Severn, crossed by the Iron Bridge itself; and The Potteries in Stoke have a dozen or so ceramics-related sites, from the Wedgwood Museum to Emma Bridgewater’s factory, linked by a specially-designed Ceramics Trail.
I love social museums such as the Weald & Downland Living Museum in East Sussex, or the earliest industrial museum in the country, Beamish, in County Durham, with its living pit village and Edwardian railway station; or the brilliant Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, which offers silent film showings, traditional street games and, yup, fish and chips.
Everybody’s got their favourite object. The eight-metre long crayon at the Derwent Pencil Museum, Cumbria, say; the over-stuffed walrus at the Horniman Museum in south east London; life-size Cybermen and Daleks at the Montacute TV Radio Toy Museum; Guy Fawkes’ lantern (allegedly) in Oxford’s Ashmolean; the rocker’s leather jacket at the Brighton & Hove Museums’ Fashion & Style Gallery. And the Dog Collar Museum at Leeds Castle.
Then there’s the Whitby Museum, which moved to a new building in 1931 designed around its prize example of an ichthyosaurus crassimanus found in the local jet beds. They got the measurements wrong and had to arrange it diagonally on the wall, where it still hangs.
The Lyme Regis Museum charms with its eccentric building as much as its Mary Anning fossils. You can watch rope being twisted at Chatham Dockyard and Welsh blankets being woven for real at the National Wool Museum of Wales. And I’m dying to do a Telescope Walk at the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre near Manchester, which surely counts as a museum and got UNESCO World Heritage status in July.
Even if the museum in question is not really your thing, there’s something incredible about peering into precious collections. What else could they be but Wonder Houses?
British Museum, London
The 71,000 objects in Sloane’s collection have long since ballooned to around six million, thousands of them displayed in the huge wings surrounding the Great Court.
QUEEN OF COLLECTIONS
Victoria & Albert, London
The visual splendour of this collection is breathtaking, from the charming Japanese netsuke figures (my favourite: the curled-up rat with its tiny paws and tail) to the fashion blockbusters including Mary Quant, running until late February 2020.
COTTAGE IN WALES
St Fagans National Museum of History, Wales
The Art Fund Museum of the Year 2019 has history galleries, a collection of over 40 historic buildings, reassembled here since 1948, as well as a busy schedule of traditional crafts, music and dance, all wrapped around a castle and gardens. Nantwallter Cottage is a tiny estate cottage, built around 1770 of clom (dried mud) and cruck beams, moving for its practical simplicity of the layout and furniture.
TELL IT LIKE IT WAS
People’s History Museum, Manchester
The ‘National Museum of Democracy’ is one of a new generation of museums turning history on its head, telling it from the point of view of the people who lived it but often had no voice – from slum clearance to the story of the Peterloo Massacre.
Museum of the Mind, Beckenham
The Bedlam lunatic asylum, founded in London in 1247, is now part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, in Beckenham since 1930. It’s one of the best small museums you’ll see, with a padded cell opened up to reveal stunning garden views and a magnificent collection of what we now call ‘outsider art’.
The chilling figures ‘Melancholy Madness’ and ‘Raving Madness’, sculpted by Caius Gabriel Cibber were outside Bedlam when it was based at Moorfields for 150 years.
TWIST AND SHOUT
Kircaldy Testing Museum
In a stunning Victorian warehouse on Southwark Street, London, a Victorian monster sleeps. David Kircaldy built his Universal Testing Machine in the 1870s and brought it to London. Not only is the machine amazing but the volunteers are genuine buffs. Every second Saturday the Universal Testing Machine at the museum, one of only two remaining in the world, actually runs, showing its prowess with torsion, tension and weight testing.
THE JET AGE
This was originally run by the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, set up in 1823, and moved to Pannett Park in 1931. It has everything from dinosaur footprints to Victorian samplers and the famous mummified human hand known as the ‘Hand of Glory’.
RUNNERS AND RIDERS
National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art, Palace House, Newmarket
The Queen is the patron of these three museums, including Charles II’s racing pavilion. It’s stuffed with art, racing records (the Newmarket Match Book is the oldest) and real horses – plus racing strings clattering through the town en route to the Gallops. Call me superficial, but the best exhibit at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing has got to be the racehorse simulator in the King’s Yard Galleries: dress up as a jockey and climb aboard (it’s truly exhausting – respect!)
Etches Collection, Kimmeridge, Dorset
Unusually, the collector, Dr Steve Etches MBE, is alive, kicking and has a glass-walled workshop on site for his legendary collection of Jurassic marine fossils. The CGI ‘live fossils’ at the Etches Collection swimming across the pitched ceiling with their fossilised remains on display below are the one time that the fossil world has made any sense to me. Also see the traditional Lyme Regis Museum for its displays on Regency fossil hunter Mary Anning.
Find a guide to take you on a tour of any of these museums.