Exploring England 2015, Part 8 – Museums

Saturday, Sep 03, 2016 at 15:13


With such a long and varied history there are plenty of museums to enjoy in England. They come in a variety of forms – many of the castles, grand house, churches and cathedrals do double duty as a museum, preserving and displaying their treasured items. Then there are the more conventional collections, sometimes housed in repurposed buildings, sometimes in grand purpose built structures.

Natural History Museum, London.

While in London we visited the Natural History Museum and the nearby Science Museum in South Kensington. We had paid a quick visit to the Natural History Museum on a previous visit, but wanted more time to take in some of the famous displays there, including the dinosaur gallery. The museum is a very popular and busy place, a popular venue for school visits. Consequently we had to jostle in the crush of primary school-aged children, especially in the dinosaur section which is probably the most popular and hence most crowded and noisy part of the museum. Despite that, the exhibits of actual and model dinosaurs are fascinating, bringing some perspective to animals so unlike any that we can see alive today. Massive bones, wickedly sharp claws and teeth and giant skulls are all there along with many smaller specimens and plenty of explanatory material. In the nearby mammal section we saw preserved and stuffed animals that we had at best only read about – and even some that we had never heard about.

After the crush and noise it was a welcome relief to find the Treasures exhibition where 22 special items spanning 4.5 billion years of the Earth's history were displayed in a quiet darkened gallery. Touchscreens explained the significance of each exhibit. Perhaps the highlight for me was the fragile fossil of an Archaeopteryx, part reptile, part bird that I had first heard about as a young biology student half a century ago. After lunch we paid the obligatory visit to Charles Darwin, or at least to his statue, that gazes down over the vast main hall. At the opposite end, is the slab of a giant 1500 year old redwood marked with major events in world history that occurred while it was a living tree. But why, we wondered, would anyone ever want to cut down such a tree – it must have been a magnificent specimen?

Nearby is a gallery containing a vast display of rocks, minerals and precious stones from all around the world – and some Mars rock from a meteorite for good measure. And, as if to compensate for the hurly burly of the morning – there was hardly another person in sight. So as our feet protested and our heads spun with the variety of exhibits, we took in as much as we could. This was close to an ideal museum experience, away from noise and bustle with time to soak up the collected wonders of the mineral world. We could have spent a whole day in that one gallery – or any of the other galleries, and in reality a museum on this scale would need many return visits to appreciate the scope of its collection.

National Science Museum, London.

A couple of days later we visited the adjoining National Science Museum. Like most of these big national institutions, entry is free, but donations are strongly encouraged. Once again we only had time to see a fraction of the exhibits, but what spectacular exhibits they were. The main exhibition traced the history of steam power and featured beam engines and pumps, working models and full sized working engines. Amazing and spectacular exhibits. There was a big section on James Watt including his actual workshop full of his tools. We had of course, learnt about Watt in primary school, although his work was presented as springing fully formed out of nowhere. That fiction was quickly dispelled by a big chart setting out Watt’s friends and contacts, a veritable who’s who of the Edinburgh Enlightenment – and a reminder that most discoveries are the result of the evolution of ideas, debate, and collaboration, with plenty of dead ends and wrong turnings along the way. The boy watching the steam lift the lid of his mother’s kettle is a charming fancy, but far removed from the reality of real scientific discovery.

A nearby display explored how the availability of abundant energy powered the industrial revolution, with the development of railways, and mechanised manufacture of a vast array of consumer and industrial goods. Stephenson’s “Rocket” train engine is right there to bring to life another dimly remembered lesson from primary school days. Then there was the section on space exploration with various rockets and satellites. A step back in time explored early agriculture especially the development of ploughs and ploughing techniques. There was a special display that looked at Winston Churchill and the scientists who worked behind the scenes during WW2 on codes, radar and ultimately the atomic bomb, with the link to the British testing program at Maralinga.

Bristol Wharves and SS “Great Britain”.

We travelled to Bristol where we spent a wet day exploring some of the history on display at the Bristol wharves. Everything here was destroyed during the Blitz on Bristol and the wharf was remodelled in the early 1950s with new electric cranes, railways and transit sheds to handle general mixed cargo on ships from the Baltic and southern Ireland.

Some of the old warehouses and workshops have now been converted into museum space. M Shed houses a display that explores the history of Bristol, although, in the absence of local knowledge, we found the exhibits rather disjointed and hard to connect with. L Shed houses the Bristol Industrial Museum featuring a display of industrial machinery, but access was only via a guided tour which we unfortunately missed.

But outside the buildings are historic cranes including the Fairbairn steam crane from 1878. It was built to handle heavy lifts up to 35 tons. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, but it still works and is demonstrated by the Museum on some weekends. Moored alongside the extensive old wharves is a wonderful variety of ships, with explanatory signage. Although the boats were not open to go on board we spent quite a while admiring these historic vessels. The Museum service looks after the cranes and three historic vessels (the tugs Mayflower and John King and the fire boat Pyronaut). There is a replica of John Cabots ship “Matthew” a tiny wooden vessel in which Cabot crossed the Atlantic to reach Newfoundland. Cabot set sail from Bristol on May 2, 1497, in a little 50 ton ship the Matthew, with a crew of 17. After sailing 53 days in that tiny vessel they came to a new land in the west, Newfoundland.

Beyond Princes Wharf is Brunel’s S.S. Great Britain, the world’s first iron hulled passenger liner, powered by a steam driven propeller and by sail. This great ship was launched from here in 1843 and travelled the world’s oceans, before being towed back from the Falkland Islands to Bristol as a hulk in 1970. She made many trips to Australia carrying immigrants and gold-diggers. By extraordinary chance, she now lies in her original building dock, and both the dock and the ship have been restored to create a unique visitor experience.

Visitors to the ship are first directed through the adjoining Maritime Museum with some impressive exhibits, including a main spar along which sailors had to walk to adjust the sails – with no harness to stop them falling. From there we walked around the outside of the hull of the ship, underneath a water covered roof at the actual waterline. From this vantage point – and below the waterline – we could see how the ship was built, the innovative propeller and get a feel for the size of the vessel. Dry air is continually circulated around the hull to prevent further corrosion.

Then we went on board where we could explore throughout the ship, above and below decks. The massive engines are an impressive sight as is the chain drive to the propeller. All the cabins, including the first class cabins were tiny, as were the bunks – were people smaller then? But first class passengers had a luxurious dining room, supplied from the massive kitchen. The whole ship was very impressive as was the way it was presented. The $25 (approx.) admission price seemed expensive but by the end of our tour we realised that it actually represented very good value. It would have been preferable to start our tour earlier in the day to give us more time there. Before finally leaving the area we were able to walk through a reconstruction of the wharf area including the yard where masts and spars were repaired or replaced. This area was very interesting and warranted more time than we had available at the end of what had been a long day.

National Railway Museum, York.

Further north in York we spent a very full day visiting the National Railway Museum. Entry was free although there was a mandatory 3 pound donation. The museum is housed in huge old railway sheds near the present railway station, both only a short walk from where we were staying inside the old city walls. The main shed houses many locomotives, carriages and related exhibits. There is a precursor to Stephenson’s Rocket and a replica of the Rocket – we had seen the original at the Science Museum in London. At the other end of the spectrum is the bullet train from Japan. It is the single exception to the rule that exhibits in this museum must be associated with Britain. The 0 Series Shinkansen leading vehicle was donated to the museum by the West Japan Railway Company in 2001 and is the only Shinkansen vehicle on exhibit outside Japan.

We spent the morning looking through the many exhibits of locomotives and other railway items. There was the turntable where we watched one man to turn a locomotive around, Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral train, and early carriages, engines and rails. The museum was quite busy with visitors and school groups but there was plenty of space. It was only when in the driver’s cabin of an engine that we had to join a queue to briefly become that romantic figure, an engine driver. How few creature comforts there were, how windswept, hot and noisy must those often tiny cabins have been.

There are approximately 280 rail vehicles in the National Collection, with around 100 being at York at any one time. From time to time there were short talks or demonstrations and in this way we saw the turntable in action, and learned some of the detail about the bullet train. Some exhibits are cut away to better explain how they work. Around the locomotives are signals and platforms as well as displays of engine numbers and other smaller items. We were especially intrigued by the detail and artistry in the company logos on the side of the locomotives.

We had lunch on site and then went into the shed that houses a number of royal carriages. The "Palaces on Wheels", display features a collection of Royal Train saloons from Queen Victoria's early trains through to those used by Queen Elizabeth II up to the 1970s. These can only be viewed from the outside but looking through the windows it is easy to see the opulent comfort and style of the furnishings.

There are many other elements of the collection housed in adjoining rooms in ranks of shelves that reached high overhead. Railway buffs could spend weeks among those shelves and still not see everything. The collection includes signalling equipment, road vehicles, ship models, posters, drawings and other artwork, tickets, nameplates, staff uniforms, clocks, watches, furniture and equipment from railway companies' hotels and refreshment rooms….and probably many more things as well.

We finished the day with a walk through the viewing galleries that overlook the workshops where locomotives are restored, and although there was plenty to see there was not much actually happening. That was probably just as well, as after about 6 hours on our feet we had reached the point where we could no longer comprehend what we were seeing. Like other big museums that we visited, numerous return visits would be required to really take in all the goodies on offer.

Jorvik Viking Centre, York.

Also while in York we visited the Jorvik Viking Centre, billed as an experience rather than a museum, but which nevertheless houses an impressive collection of Viking artefacts from the 9th century AD. These were all found on the site during the course of a five year archaeological dig during the 1970s. Well-preserved remains of some of the timber buildings of the Viking city of Jorvík were discovered, along with workshops, fences, animal pens, toilets, pits and wells. Also found were artefacts, such as pottery, metalwork and bones. Unusually, wood, leather, textiles, and plant and animal remains were also discovered, preserved in oxygen-deprived wet clay. In all, over 40,000 objects were recovered. Entering the display we walked gingerly over a glass floor directly over the foundations of the closely spaced buildings. We wondered why the houses were packed so close together.

The excavated part of Jorvik has been transformed into a reconstructed village, peopled with figures, sounds and smells, as well as animal pens, a fish market and toilets. This area is viewed from the comfort of a capsule that is carried along on an overhead track, and which swivels this way and that to give a better view of the town. Accompanying commentary and sound effects ensured that we had a realistic experience indeed.

Beyond this is a museum area, which combines an exhibition of some 800 finds from the site with interactive displays and the opportunity to learn about tenth-century life. Unfortunately this area was quite crowded and there was nowhere to sit, but despite that the exhibits were very interesting and would require return visits to do them justice.

Unfortunately a severe storm and severe flooding in December 2015 forced the museum to close and it is expected to remain closed for at least a year.

Apart from these major museums, many other sites that we visited also had small museums incorporated into visitor/interpretation centres.

Near Hastings on the Channel coast Battle Abbey is said to be the site of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated and killed King Harold during a bloody one day battle in which about 7000 men were killed. The visitor centre houses a collection of weapons, armour and hands on exhibits that, together with a short film, allowed us to get a realistic impression of what it would have been like to be a soldier on the battlefield.

In the little village of Kilmartin on the west coast of Scotland there is an excellent interpretive centre relating to Kilmartin Glen, one of Scotland’s richest prehistoric landscapes. Over 800 historic monuments, cairns, standing stones, stone circles and rock art dating back over 5000 years have been recorded within this area. The Kilmartin Museum collects and cares for all of the archaeological objects that have been found there. We were able to view these artefacts in the Museum gallery before stepping outside into the landscape to explore the sites and monuments where they were found.

At the Cranog Centre on Loch Tay in Scotland the museum houses some of the early Iron Age artefacts discovered at nearby Oakbank Crannog. Artefacts recovered during the underwater exploration include well-crafted wooden domestic utensils and structural elements such as the timbers displayed in the wet-tanks. The exhibition also features a wooden foot plough and a canoe paddle. Other discoveries such as a jet bead and items of jewellery suggest trade outside the crannog-dwellers' immediate environment.Interpretive boards detail sites of the many crannogs to be found around Scotland together with information about underwater excavations in Loch Tay and daily life of the loch-dwellers. Videos detail other crannog sites, an animated interpretation of the construction and ultimate ruination of 'Oakbank Crannog', and a look at how the reconstructed crannog was built.

York Minster underwent major stabilisation work when it was found that the massive supporting pillars were sinking. Major excavation work and building of huge reinforced concrete footings under the minster left a large space, perfect for displays. As a result York Minster is the only cathedral in the country to have an accredited museum, following the development of its “Revealing York Minster” display in the Undercroft.

The state-of-the-art attraction is housed in interactive chambers beneath the Minster and allows visitors to explore 2000 years of history at the cathedral’s site, from its Roman past to the present day. Visitors can see the remains of Roman barracks from the city of Eboracum, discover York Minster’s Viking connections through the Horn of Ulf, and see such as the 1,000 year old York Gospels. Entry to York Minster is not cheap but tickets are valid for 12 months, allowing the necessary return visits that this magnificent site requires.

To fully appreciate any museum requires time to look, to reflect and time to absorb, luxuries often not available to a fleeting visitor. Nevertheless we felt both enlightened and enriched by our visits to all these museums. They shine a light on where we have come from and help to explain some of the strange things we do now – and hopefully help us to chart a course into the future.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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