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The 10 best museums in Oxford

All that learning’s gotta come from somewhere, check out the best museums in Oxford to get a slice of the action

Written by
Huw Oliver
,
Rosemary Waugh
&
Etain O’Carroll
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You don’t need three years and a student loan to feel enlightened in Oxford, the city is packed with museums and galleries just waiting to teach you a thing or two. And thanks to its long history, generous endowments and supersmart students, Oxford’s museums are stuffed with treasures as eclectic and esoteric as its traditions. Want to check out Einstein’s blackboard, Mary Anning’s ichthyosaur, or a Siberian Shaman’s apron? You can see them all in Oxford’s best museums, and best of all, many of them are free.

Of course, there’s far more to the city than its museums, for alternatives, check out our best things to do in Oxford, and when you’re in need of a reboot, we’ve also got top tips for the best restaurants in Oxford.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Oxford

Best museums in Oxford

Ashmolean Museum

What is it? Oxford’s world-famous museum of art and archaeology.

Why go? The Ashmolean Museum is your go-to place for seeing big-name art exhibitions that change throughout the year. It’s also worth a visit if you’re a fan of remarkable artefacts from cultures across the globe. Like a smaller version of the British Museum, the Ashmolean is stuffed to the rafters with everything from King Alfred’s jewellery to a small camel used to ward off evil. Free entry.

Don’t miss: It’s not all dusty treasures, head for the third-floor modern art gallery to see works by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth and Pablo Picasso.

What is it? Unmissable museum of archaeology and ethnography containing more than half a million objects.

Why go? People LOVE this place. Dimly lit and packed to the gills with weird and wonderful displays, the Pitt Rivers Museum is like a Victorian explorer’s fantasy haul. The glass cabinets and endless drawers clutch Japanese masks, Tahitian mourning clothes, Inuit parkas, African pottery, Hawaiian feather cloaks, and even a witch in a bottle. You won’t regret a visit. Free entry.

Don’t miss: If you’re into your ink or piercings, check out the body art and ornament section for a world of ideas.

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What is it? A fascinating collection of scientific instruments ranging from Roman sundials to Einstein’s blackboard.

Why go? A bad workman blames his tools, or so the saying goes. Here, you’ll see the best scientific equipment going and be taken on a journey through the history of science told through its elaborate, and sometimes extraordinarily beautiful, instruments. The collection is set in the world’s oldest purpose-built museum building, the Old Ashmolean.

Don’t miss: The delicate and intricate designs of the museum’s astrolabes (handheld models of the universe used for astronomical measurements) make them clear winners of the ‘most beautiful exhibit’ award.

What is it? Family-friendly museum celebrating the gentle art of spinning a good yarn.

Why go? Literary connections abound in Oxford and this place looks at the inspiration behind everything from hobbits and gyptians to mad hatters. Walk through a wardrobe door into Narnia, travel between story worlds, rediscover your favourite book characters and explore and enchanted library where you can wander between shelves and find yourself inside a story. This is hands-on, family fun that will transport you into your favourite tales and introduce you to plenty more.

Don’t Miss: The museum hosts loads of interesting talks, events and performances, as well as regular workshops, a comic club, and adult-only nights of fairy tales for grown ups.

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What is it? A neo-Gothic showstopper strung with dino skeletons, adorned with butterflies and beetles, and home to Oxford’s legendary dodo.

Why go? A cathedral-like museum where the architecture is as eye-catching as the vast displays, Oxford’s Museum of Natural History started life as the uni’s centre for scientific study. It’s home to a mind boggling collection of over seven million historical and modern specimens covering rocks, minerals and fossils as well as zoological specimens. Free entry.

Don’t miss: Hidden away upstairs is the museum’s beehive where you can see a colony of European honey bees at work. It’s one of only handful of observation hives in the UK and has glass sides so you can watch the colony in safety.

Modern Art Oxford

What is it? Contemporary art gallery known for pulling in big name exhibtions. 

Why go? OK, so it’s not technically a museum (it’s an art gallery) but Modern Art Oxford used to be named the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, therefore granting it honorary museum status. Whatever the name above the door, this is an excellent small exhibition space where known for its bold and ambitious programming and excellent workshop series. Free entry (there’s a charge for some events).

Don’t miss: The gallery runs regular creative workshops and talks alongside its shows making it a great way to get more involved.

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Museum of Oxford

What is it? Town Hall-based museum dedicated to the history of Oxford and its people.

Why go? Unlike the jazzy university-run museums filled with ancient artefacts of international significance, the Museum of Oxford has a more humble mission: to tell the story of Oxford’s people. The recently redeveloped museum in the Town Hall offers an insight into Oxford life past and present and the persistent tension between town and gown. Free entry.

What is it? A permanent exhibition space displaying themed shows exploring some of the Bodleian’s finest artefacts

Why go? The Bodleian is one of just three legal deposit libraries in England, meaning that it holds a copy of every book published since 1662, plus a whole heap of others before that. That makes it an authority on pretty much every subject you can imagine and its exhibition space hosts themed shows delving into all sorts of glories from the history of selfies and manga to botany, anatomy and the suffragette movement.

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Bate Collection of Musical Instruments

What is it? Honking great collection of historical musical instruments.

Why go? Whether you blow it, pluck it, press it or suck on it, if it makes a pleasant noise the Bate Collection probably owns it. Housed in the university’s Faculty of Music, the public is given access to an extensive group of music-making machines, dating from the Middle Ages onwards, best of all, many of them are still in use and available on loan to students and visiting researchers. Free entry.

Don’t miss: Along with a harpsichord reputedly owned by Handel and case loads of priceless instruments, the museum also contains some brilliant but bonkers experiments including a clarinet made from a plunger.

Oxford Uni Press Museum

What is it? Under-appreciated museum where the printed word is king.

Why? Head over to Dictionary Corner (actually, the Oxford Uni Press offices on Great Clarendon Street) and get geeky about typefaces. This ‘hidden gem’ is so hidden you have to book a time slot in advance to visit, but the lucky souls who make it through the doors can explore displays on the history of printing, Alice in Wonderland and the Oxford English Dictionary. Free entry.

 

Worked up an appetite?

The 13 best restaurants in Oxford
  • Restaurants

The city of dreaming spires and enchanted gardens has a very substantial food scene. We’ve rounded up the cream of the crop, including nostalgia-themed burgers, fancy-pants dining and unbelievably delicious (and cheap) Thai. 

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