Aiming to flex those grey cells while you’re in Oxford? You don’t need three years and a student loan to feel like you’ve learned a thing or two in this hardcore land of worldliness and knowledge. One way to feel a little wiser is to visit one of the many excellent museums in Oxford. You might not know all that much about musical instruments, Guy Fawkes or shrunken heads yet, but start ticking off these institutions and you’ll go away an expert.
Learning really can make you hungry, so make sure to top up at one of the best restaurants in Oxford afterwards. And if your schedule’s starting to look empty and museums aren’t your bag, there are plenty of other fantastic things to do in Oxford, too.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Oxford
Best museums in Oxford
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.
What is it? Unmissable museum of archaeology and ethnography containing more than half a million objects.
Why go? Ask anyone for advice on what to see in Oxford and there’s a good chance they’ll tell you to go to the Pitt Rivers Museum. People LOVE this place. Japanese masks, Tahitian mourning clothes, Inuit parkas, African pottery, Hawaiian feather cloaks… the list goes on. You won’t regret a visit. Free entry.
What is it? Contemporary art gallery with a knack for programming excellent exhibitions.
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 visitors can see top-quality art being made right now. Free entry (there’s a charge for some events).
What is it? Fascinating nature-based Oxford museum where visitors can see a dinosaur and a dodo.
Why go? Oxford’s Museum of Natural History started life as the uni’s centre for scientific study. It’s now open to the public, giving visitors the chance to see thousands of rocks, minerals, fossils and zoological specimens. The other reason to visit is to see the splendid neo-Gothic building it uses as a home. Very Oxford, and very grand. Free entry.
What is it? World’s oldest purpose-built museum building where visitors can marvel at scientific instruments.
Why go? A bad workman blames his tools, or so the saying goes. Maybe so, but it certainly helps to have the best equipment going. See the history of science told through the instruments created for it at the Old Ashmolean, a historic building on Broad Street. Free entry.
What is it? Child-friendly museum celebrating the gentle art of spinning a good yarn.
Why go? In 2009, Oxford’s Story Museum opened its doors, providing the city with a quirky, charming museum that’ll make you yearn to hurry home and snuggle up with a good book. The next chapter involves substantial redevelopment from 2018–2020, during which they’ll be operating on a smaller scale to normal, including making use of their pop-up story tent, The Pumpkin.
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 international artefacts, the Museum of Oxford has a simple mission: to tell the story of Oxford’s people. The small museum can be found in the Town Hall. From summer 2018–2020 it’s undergoing major redevelopment plans, so make sure you check its opening times before visiting. Free entry.
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. Free entry.
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.