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The best museums in Bristol

Here's our pick of Bristol's best museums, art galleries and exhibitions

Love to learn? Hypnotised by history? Yearn for yesteryear? Well Bristol has you pretty well covered, with a wealth of artefacts, significant historical finds and pieces from the past all collected and housed within some really rather marvellous museums and attractions. From the nautical delights of the SS Great Britain to the late-18th century marvels at the Georgian House Museum and the serious stuff at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, there's certainly plenty of great things to do.

Bristol museums

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Trying to list the attractions at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery makes you sound like a carnival showman. Egyptian and ancient Assyrian artefacts! Geology, diamonds and fossils! Alfred, the stuffed gorilla! Contemporary ceramics and glassware! Not to mention the balcony gallery and an art collection ranging from Pissarro to the Old Dutch and Italian Masters. Stepping into the high atrium, and seeing the Bristol Boxkite suspended above your head in flight, there’s a feeling of childish excitement. Think the Natural History Museum, but with added Victorian and Edwardian paintings. Changing shows are just as bogglingly miscellaneous as the permanent collection, whether it’s early work by Turner, contemporary Chinese porcelain, or the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. Luckily, they’re heavily subsidised so you can see them all, and entrance to the rest of the museum is free. The café usually does a good quiche, too, which is all the encouragement anyone should need.

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Cotham

M Shed

If you had to describe the M Shed in two words, those words would be: steam crane. Yes, this former transit shed has a diverting museum dedicated to the city, but the biggest objects in museum’s collection are also the best; the steam and electric cranes, engines and historic boats that line the river outside.  Where else can you ride the exhibits? On certain days, volunteers open the cranes to visitors, the boats to passengers, and fire up the steam engines to pull delighted people up and down the Dockside Railway. Inside, the permanent exhibits offer an overview of Bristol’s people, places and daily life, through a mish-mash of artefacts, objects, films and testimonials. You’ll find models from Wallace & Gromit amongst the art and social history displays; there’s a section dedicated to city’s part in the slave trade, as well as events that shaped Bristol’s history, like the 1831 and 1980 riots. There’s plenty to keep children and adults alike occupied here, but real voyeurs (like me) won’t be able to resist going behind the scenes: tours of the museum’s vast collection stores, led by volunteers with encyclopaedic knowledge, run five times a week for the princely sum of a £2 suggested donation.

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Canon's Marsh

Brunel's ss Great Britain

Even from outside, the ss Great Britain is impressive, but an official visit is well worth the ticket price. No matter your age, it’s impossible not to be delighted by the reconstruction of this ship. From the dry dock with its glass ‘sea’, to the engine room, it’s an immersive experience, bringing the era of the steam ship to life.  Walking around the ship’s hull is fascinating. Water flows over the air-sealed glass ceiling above your head, and huge dehumidifiers protect the old iron ship from corrosion. The museum itself is fun and informative, but the ship – obviously – is the star of the show. The restoration of the ss Great Britain has been done brilliantly; there are details everywhere, from soundscapes to the scent of baking bread in the kitchens. Best of all, you can witness the noise and the huge, moving pistons of the engine room. With storytellers in period dress, workshops on conservation and even a chance to climb the rigging in the warmer months, there really is no excuse not to visit this outstanding achievement in historical preservation. It’s not the cheapest museum in town, but once you’ve paid, tickets are good for a whole year.

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Canon's Marsh
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The Georgian House Museum

During the eighteenth-century, 500,000 slaves passed through Bristol’s port, and as a result, the city prospered. The Georgian House on Park Street was built in 1790 by John Pinney; a merchant who made his fortune in sugar and slave plantations. It’s been faithfully reconstructed into a free museum to give an idea of what life was like then, from the lavish to the everyday. By Georgian standards, Pinney was nouveau riche. The house is a testament to this: stately, solid but still built to impress. There’s a dining room laid for a dinner party, a library and a ladies’ withdrawing room, set for cards and tea. By a long way, the kitchen beneath stairs is the most interesting space, lined with copper pots and strange domestic devices, designed to make the opulent habits of the family possible. There’s minimal information, but the staff are pretty darn knowledgeable if you have questions. Mostly, you’re left to wander and take it all in at your own pace. The last room you reach attempts to put what you’ve seen into perspective. It contains a small exhibition about slavery, including drawings written documentation from John Pinney himself. Unsettling, but vastly important.

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Central Bristol

The Red Lodge Museum

Even residents of Bristol can be forgiven for not knowing that the Red Lodge Museum is there. No one would ever imagine that beyond the small, bright red door is a Tudor house, the last complete sixteenth-century room in the country, and a reconstructed Elizabethan knot garden. The Great Oak Room, with its intricately carved wood panelling and ornate moulded ceiling is a testament to the merchant class and their new world wealth, as well as to skill and craftsmanship. From 1578, it took two whole years to complete. What’s astonishing is how the Red Lodge has escaped destruction time and again over the centuries. From remodelling in the Georgian era, to being used as a dissection theatre by nineteenth-century medical students, to today, when it’s steps away from a hulking multi-story car park. Outside, overlooking Colston Hall, is the incongruous, elegant little Tudor knot garden, faithfully re-created with flowers and shrubs of time. There’s not much information available, and while the volunteers are usually only too happy to supply you with facts and stories, it’s enough to be able to wander through the rooms and appreciate that this strange little sliver of Elizabethan Bristol still exists.

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Central Bristol

Suspension Bridge Visitor Centre

Gone are the days when you had to cram yourself into a tiny kiosk in order to satisfy your curiosity about a famous bridge. Opened last year, the new Visitors Centre offers a potted history of this much-loved Bristol landmark, with interactive displays about the bridge’s construction as well as its composition and maintenance. There are intriguing stories aplenty here, from the discovery of hidden vaulted chambers, to first-hand accounts from the men and women who worked the bridge during its 150-year history. Not to mention facts: did you know that that they have to use crystallised cow urine as de-icer, because salt would cause corrosion? No? Well you do now. See the sketches for Brunel’s winning proposal, alongside competition from the likes of Thomas Telford and the future Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield, who was only sixteen when he submitted a design. (Bet he wouldn’t thank them for dredging that up). It’s not extensive, but it’s a diverting way to spend half an hour.

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Blaise Castle House Museum

Blaise Castle House Museum may seem like a mouthful to say, but trust me, it’s even trickier to summarise. Where to start? The eighteenth-century Grade II listed mansion building? The museum of social history oddities, from toys to toilets? The domed picture room, with its fine art collection, or the stunning, 600 acres of parkland? For convenience, the museum. Too often overlooked by visitors to the main grounds, there’s plenty of interest here. Kids (and adults, probably) will be alternately delighted and freaked out by the displays of old toys, doll’s houses and games, some of them more than 200 years old. There are beautiful fabrics and dresses from the 1730s to pore over in the costume collection, as well an exhibition showing how everyday domestic living has changed over the last 300 years. Add to this a lovingly restored picture room, with art work on loan from Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and you’re looking at a couple of hours well spent. Don’t worry, the parkland, playgrounds, castle folly and spectacular views will still be there, waiting to be explored when you emerge. Tip: if you’re planning to visit on a sunny weekend, it’s best to choose your timing; the grounds are popular and although there’s loads of free parking, it can get busy.

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Henbury

Oakham Treasures

On paper, this place is a 'privately owned museum of retail and farming history'. In reality, it’s a hoarder’s trove of everything – I mean everything – you could possibly think of from the daily life of a bygone age. A hundred years worth of stuff, arranged by type in a hangar-like space, the packaging and advertisements alone make it a graphic designer’s paradise. Inside the row upon row of enormous Victorian display cabinets, you’ll find collections of cigarettes and cleaning products, toys and 80-year-old chocolate bars still intact in their wrapping, even agricultural medicines. (Poultry conditioner, anyone?) Oh, and there are more than 150 vintage tractors, just in case that’s your thing. What’s mind-boggling is that someone thought to collect so many run-of-the-mill items, that with time have become relics of the past. Some of it is decidedly un-PC, but that’s important. More than a nostalgia trip, it’s a stark reminder of how our attitudes have (hopefully) changed over the past century. There’s a homemade vibe to the whole place, unsurprising because it’s completely family-run. Be prepared to lose several hours in bewildered fascination before staggering, blinking, into the onsite café.

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At Bristol

Rather than traipsing around a museum that has put in a kids’ trail as an afterthought, this place is built on educating and entertaining children of all ages (and adults, if you have a sense of fun). Think everything science, from invention labs to a mini Aardman animation studio, a planetarium, and yes, a real human brain on display. They try to please everyone here, with specific days for under-5s – reduced ticket prices for parents – and whole sections aimed at under-8s. If the thought child-filled science centre fills you with horror, they hold adults-only evenings, too, where you can wander through the exhibits, beer in hand. There’s so much here, you’ll struggle to do it all. Set fire to food to find out about energy, learn about the stars in the planetarium, examine your veins under infra-red ray, film yourself on a high-speed camera and play it back in slow motion… Then there are special events, like the brilliant Fairytale SOS, which explains how fairy-tale characters could have rescued themselves, if they’d had science on their side. Yes, the tickets are on the pricey side, and occasionally a few of the exhibits need repairing, but it’s a riot for kids, and a great day out.

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