Saturday, 30 May 2009

Ten museums

Here's a list I have been meaning to put together for such a long while: my ten favourite museums. I have needed a whole week away from work and the computer to come up with a list that I like. There were so many possible contenders!

  • The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. This is a mad collection of artefacts, gathered initially by Lt General Pitt Rivers, a Victorian anthropologist, explorer and archaeologist and then added to by later collectors. It has items as diverse as shrunken human heads from Bolivian tribes, an Inuit's clothes, dinosaur skeletons, a dodo, a coracle and toy trucks made from old Coca Cola cans. Last year it had a massive refurbishment, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and is now accessible, airy and impressive. Every time you go, you will find something different to coo over.
  • The Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. This is part of the Victoria and Albert Museum but is located at the opposite end of London. This is my favourite museum in London, and very close to where we live, so I take C and O at least once every school holiday. It is compact, simple and enchanting. O loves the enormous dolls houses, C loves the Action Men and I love all the Victorian nursery furniture and costumes.
  • The National Museum of American History in Washington DC. I spent a few weeks in Washington DC, staying with cousins, when I was seventeen and I went back to this museum almost every day. It was entirely responsible for me deciding to study American History at university a year or two later. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is situated about halfway up the Mall, in a part of East Coast America just steeped in historical significance. I remember seeing inaugural gowns from various first ladies, the earliest surviving stars and stripes flag, a cotton gin and very early photos of Civil War soldiers. If this is not so handy for you, there is also The American Museum in Britain, in Bath which has an excellent collection of quilts and other American memorabilia.
  • The Natural History Museum in Kensington, London. Of the big three Kensington museums (the Science Museum, the V & A and the Natural History Museum), this is my favourite. Ignore the whizz-bang dinosaur exhibition which will be full of screeching children and head for the life size blue whale or the primates on the top floor. Each year it hosts the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, which I have always loved. You can now buy prints of the winning photographs; we have two from the 2008 competition up at home.
  • The Horniman Museum in Forest Hill, South East London. This is another madly eclectic museum. I discovered it very recently and it still feels a bit like a local secret for the lucky people who live nearby. It has an aquarium, ornamental gardens, Polish paper art, a stuffed walrus (HOW big?), a staggering collection of musical instruments and Chinese embroidery. Amongst other things.

  • The National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, Cornwall is better than the one in Greenwich. It is located right on the quay in a modern, purpose built building and is rammed with boats of every size and shape. There are plenty of interactive things to do which will entice even the most London-ish, landlocked person into dreaming of running away to sea.
  • The Imperial War Museum - both the main museum in Lambeth in London, and the aviation site at Duxford, just outside Cambridge. The enormous guns outside the main London museum set the tone for a visit - awe inspiring. I always think how courageous someone was, to set up a museum about wars - from warfare to the home front and everything in between. It has particularly an excellent set of displays on WWII; I love walking around the house set up for blackout, and squeezing into the Andersen shelter.

  • The Fashion Museum in Bath. I need to go back to this museum I think. I went loads as a teenager, when school trips to Bath were on the curriculum every year. It knocks the socks (ha!) off the costume room at the V & A in London. Gasp at the corsets and laugh at the hats. I find old items of clothing really quite moving; how can you not think about the people who wore these costumes? They bring history vividly alive for me.
  • The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in Hampshire is a very recent discovery. I went for the first time this past week when I was camping in the New Forest. I'm not wild about cars as a rule, but this museum is just so much fun. Shiny old cars that simply ooze glamour. I imagined myself being driven off to a picnic by Lord Peter Wimsey in his shiny red Daimler. I sat in the passenger seat with a chiffon scarf tied fetchingly around my hair, and with a wicker picnic basket on the back seat. This just pipped the London Transport Museum as my best museum about Things That Go. Those of you who have boy children will understand the need for this category.
  • The Castell Henllys Iron Age Fort in Pembrokeshire, Wales. A rubbish website but an amazing place. It is a reconstructed Iron Age fort in rural Wales, built on the site of an actual Iron Age settlement. Sit around the central fire in the Chief's hut, grind some flour, try your hand at wattle-and-daubing a wall and marvel at how easy our 21st Century life is.


As this is my 200th post and I have been blogging for just over 2 years, I am going to do a giveaway of some embroidery, fabric and buttons. To win, leave me a comment before Thursday 4th June, telling me about your favourite museum - where ever in the world it might be. I will use a random number generator to draw a winner and announce the winner on 4th June. I look forward to seeing what list you all come up with!


  1. wow fab list!!! thats the next 2 years of museum visiting sorted for me and the family :-)
    We havent been to that many museums but my two loved the Natural History Museum although your right about the dinosaur bit !
    Lesley x

  2. The Kelvingrove in Glasgow is my number 1. The building itself is beautiful and has just undergone a fantastic renovation and you can see all the beautiful features. It has everything adults and small children could ever want- armour, paintings (controversial ones too), dinosaurs, floating heads, sarcophogi, clothing, pretty jewels, Mackintosh furniture... oh just everything.

    Also love the fossil museum on Orkney - bizarre but a great afternoon out

    I loooooooove museums.

  3. I spent many hours at Sudley House as a child. We lived down the road from it and I would venture up there by myself. My favourite room had costumes and a massive dolls house which I used to stare into for hours and longed to take it home! Maybe thats why I loved working at Cosprop as it was a massive version of the museum but you got to touch! We even had dolls houses that I wallpapered!!
    Haven't been back for years and would love to take F+T and show them were I grew up!

  4. I'm going to cheat slightly and say several museums that I trecked around in northern France as a young teenager (so long ago-sob!) The museums, landing beaches and cemetaries had such a massive effect on my young self. It really made war a reality, something that doesn't really occur to most 13 or 14 year olds.

  5. My favourite museum is in my favourite holiday destination, Shetland. The Shetland Crofthouse museum is brilliant. Its a restored crofthouse exactly as it would have been lived in by a typical Shetland family. There are two rooms, one has box beds and in the other, the living end, a peat fire is kept burning. The museum guide in traditional dress is happy to chat, absolutely lovely and in a stunning location.

    The website address for photos-

  6. I do have a mad old love for the Merseyside Maritime Museum, because I worked for the Merseyside Museums for a few months many years ago.

  7. Great list! And I feel so cultured having been to 3 of them. Have been meaning to go to the National Motor Museum (well, to tale the boys mainly) for ages - perhaps this summer.

    And our favourite museum - right next to the Pitt Rivers, th Oxford University Museum of Natural History. So hugely hands on for kids and small enough to not be overwhelming.

  8. Totally agre with you about The
    Maritime in Falmouth, loved it there.!

    Apart from The Museum of Childhood, I love the Geffrye Museum and The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

    Congratulations on your 200th post!

  9. What a brilliant list. I love the Pitt Rivers; we used to sneak in there to escape from revising in the Radcliffe Science Library just across the way.

    I remember the walrus at the Horniman from school trips! I did hear that the people preparing it had never seen a real walrus and didn't know it had floppy skin so they just kept stuffing it!

    My favourite museum is probably the Ashmolean in Oxford though. I've sent many happy hours wandering there.

  10. what an amazing list! Clearly our trip in the planning stage to London needs to include more than the Nat History..
    I shall have to vote for the National Railway in York, not so much because I love trains, but because when the children were smaller they did, and it always guaranteed 2 happy children if we had a trip there.

  11. Being on the doorstep I have to vote for The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. Seeing this wonderful chateau in rural Teesdale is such a surprise, as are its many treasures. Must mention its Toy Tales exhibiton running at the moment - a must for Clangers fans everwhere!

  12. Fab list! I do love the Natural History Museum and New York's version is just as brilliant, so that would be my choice.
    Love MOMA too!

  13. My favorite museum changes often, but right now it is the Czech Museum of Medieval Art in Prague. I just wrote a post about it here.


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