Museums on the mind

Tom Evans explores how Britain’s museums are bringing history to life and looks at options for a group visit.

The Black Country Living Museum in the West Midlands.

The Black Country Living Museum in the West Midlands.

The wide variety and sheer number of museums located across the UK provide an almost endless choice of attractions. Many are adding extra dimensions to their offer by taking a creative approach to exhibiting collections and provide tours, talks, handling sessions and behind the scenes visits to help enhance a group experience.

Science and engineering

In London, the Science Museum houses an extensive collection relating to science, technology, industry and medicine. New curator-led tours are available to groups, which give an exclusive insight into some of the most famous items in the collections.
Close by, the Natural History Museum houses life and earth science specimens within its vast collections. The state of the art Darwin Centre allows visitors to explore world-class science in action. Groups can also visit a new permanent exhibition that features artworks alongside objects and specimens to illustrate the crucial role that art and imaging plays in science. General entry is free.

Learning about the exhibits at the National Railway Museum in York.

Learning about the exhibits at the National Railway Museum in York.

The National Railway Museum in York is a goldmine for those interested in the history of the railways. As the largest museum of its kind in the world, its vast collection tells the story of the railway from the early 19th century to the present day.
The Flying Scotsman has been meticulously restored by the museum’s workshop team and will be on display in the Great Hall between 28th to 30th May. Entry to the museum is free and private dining in the luxurious Pullman carriage, Valiant, is also available.

Design

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), located in London’s South Kensington, is one of the greatest museums of decorative art and design in the world and houses an extensive collection of fashion and textiles dating back to the 17th century. The museum offers a wide range of tours and talks to help groups explore the outstanding collections.

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, located just off the famous Portobello Road in Notting Hill, features over 12,000 originalitems from the collection of consumer historian Robert Opie. Groups can discover how well-loved brands evolved through the creative use of packaging and explore the history of consumer culture. Groups of 10 plus receive a 10% discount.
The National Motor Museum at Beaulieu houses a collection of over 250 vehicles from every motoring era. Visitors to the site in Hampshirewill see Formula One racers, World Land Speed Record Breakers and television favourites, while a space age pod takes you on a trip through motoring history. Tours of the museum have been tailored to meetthe needs of groups and use expert guides to explore the fine collection. All-inclusive tickets provide entry to all of Beaulieu’s attractions and group rates apply to 15 or more people.

Displays at the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London.

Displays at the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London.

Social history

The British Museum was the first national public museum in the world and houses an immense collection of objects relating to human history and culture. Groups can take a number of tours that explore specific subjects and exhibition lecture packages are also available comprising an illuminating lecture by a British Museum expert, coffee and biscuits and entry to an exhibition. Groups looking for a unique experience in the City of London could head to the Bank of England Museum where exhibits, interactive displays and special events reveal the Bank’s history from its foundation in 1694. On display is weaponry once used to defend the Bank, Roman mosaics uncovered when the Bank was rebuilt in the 1930s, and items from the Bank’s collections of silver, paintings, photographs, coins and documents. The museum is the only place in the UK where visitors can handle a genuine gold bar and free cinema presentations are available to groups of between 15 and 50 people.
The Museum of London and the Museum of London Docklands are two venues that explore the capital’shistory from 450,000BC to the present day. At each museum groups can enjoy exclusive gallery tours.
Located on the edge of Falmouth’s stunning harbour, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall celebrates the sea, boats and the region. Its diverse collection spans 15 galleries and includes around 140 small craft. On Thin Ice: Pioneers of Polar Exploration (8th April – 9th October) honours the achievements of polar explorers using photography, objects and personal ephemera (for more on this, see page 60), while Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks (until 31st December 2011) looks at lighthouses and their keepers using hands-on exhibits and interactive displays. Talks, lectures and workshops are available to groups, as are discounts on entry fees. The collection of Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums includes the Great North Museum in Newcastle, which incorporates collections from the Hancock Museum and Newcastle University’s Museum of Antiquities, the Shefton Museum and the Hatton Gallery. Highlights include a largescale, interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall. Entry to the museum is free and tours are available.
Also in the group, The Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens explores the history of the city from its prehistoric past to the present day. Displays interpret the wide variety of collections using hands-on exhibits, computer interactives and video presentations. Its Art Gallery features paintings by L S Lowry, while the Winter Gardens feature over 2,000 flowers and plants. The museum offers guided tours to groups and entry is free.
Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum in Wallsend and Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum in South Shields complete the collection.

Horse-drawn transportation at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.

Horse-drawn transportation at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum.

National Museums Northern Ireland care for a number of collections that reflect the history, culture and people of the country. Based in County Down is the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum where visitors can chat to costumed guides and wander through parkland complete with cottages, farms, schools and shops. The Armagh County Museum has collections relating to the people who lived, worked and had connections with the region and the Ulster American Folk Park allows groups to learn about Irish emigration. The Ulster Museum is home to a rich collection of art, history and natural sciences. Special group rates and guided tours are available at most venues.

Industrial history

In the Midlands, the Black Country Living Museum celebrates the traditional skills and enterprise of people that once lived in the heartland of industrial Britain. Historic shops, houses and workplaces have been moved and rebuilt at the site and scenes from 1850 to the 1950s are brought alive by a wonderful range of characters. Costumed demonstrators act as guides and parties of 20 or more receive a free tour.
Located close to Telford, the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums take visitors on a journey from the start of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1700s to the Victorian era. Blists Hill Victorian Town is perhaps the most popular of the ten museums and allows visitors to experience an atmospheric glimpse into Victorian life. The Museum of the Gorge provides an excellent introduction to the valley and its attractions, Coalport China Museum houses displays of two centuries of china and Darby House provides an insight into the lifestyle of the Darby family. Other museums include the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, Enginuity, Jackfield Tile Museum, Broseley Pipeworks, The Iron Bridge and the Tar Tunnel. A group ticket, valid for six days from arrival, provides an affordable way to see all ten museums.

Chatting to a costumed character at Beamish – The Living Museum of the North.

Chatting to a costumed character at Beamish – The Living Museum of the North.

Beamish – The Living Museum of the North stands in 300 acres of beautiful County Durham countryside and tells the story of life in the north east of England during Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian times. Groups enjoy discounts.
Nestled in more picturesque countryside in the Leven Valley, the Lakeland Motor Museum houses over 30,000 exhibits tracing one hundred years of motoring heritage. The venue offers combined tickets with Windermere Lake Cruises.

Sport and music

The British Golf Museum sits just 67 yards from the famous Old Course at St Andrews in Scotland. Imaginative exhibitions, hands on activities and multimedia displays bring over 500 years of golfing history to life. The galleries run in chronological order and at the end of a visit, groups can practice putting with replica clubs and balls from the last 175 years.
The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum combines state-of-the-art interactive exhibitions with an unparalleled collection of tennis memorabilia. ‘The Queue’, which opens in April, is an unusual attraction that explores the traditions of the Wimbledon queue and features a display of objects amassed from queueing over the years. Behind the scenes tours, led by professional Blue Badge Guides, allow visitors to enjoy views of London from the top of ‘Henman Hill’. Discounts apply.
Not too far away is the Musical Museum, which houses a remarkable collection of automatic musical instruments, as diverse as tiny musical boxes and self-playing violins. One of the highlights is the Mighty Wurlitzer cinema organ that rises up from beneath the stage in the concert hall. Most groups visit the museum to take a guided tour of the collection, which includes instrument demonstrations. A series of monthly Saturday afternoon sessions, Waltzing to the Wurlitzer, have been introduced this year, while other shows include silent films with Wurlitzer accompaniment.

Military history

The Imperial War Museum has five branches that cover different aspects of war. The Imperial War Museum London tells the story of those who have lived, fought and died in conflict from the First World War to the present day. Interactive displays, temporary exhibitions and The Explore History Centre enhance the visitor and learning experience. Upcoming exhibitions include Women War Artists (9th April – 8th January).
In Salford Quays, the Imperial War Museum North explores how war shapes lives through themed exhibitions, a 360-degree light and sound show, tours and object handling sessions. The largest ever exhibition about war reporting, ‘War Correspondent: reporting under fire since 1914’ (28th May – 2nd January), will be launched to coincide with the opening of MediaCityUK and the re-location of five BBC departments to the Quays.
The group’s other venues are the Churchill War Rooms and HMS Belfast in London and the Imperial War Museum Duxford.
The Household Cavalry Museum sits within Horse Guards, one of central London’s most historic buildings. As a living museum, it celebrates the history of the Household Cavalry through compelling personal stories, interactive displays and fascinating rare objects. Visitors can see troopers working with horses in the original 18th century stables and hear first hand accounts of their rigorous and demanding training. Groups of eight or more receive a 10% discount and guided tours are available at no extra charge.

Enhancing the museum experience

Enhancing the museum experience

Museums continue to look for different ways of engaging their audience and presenting collections.Technology plays its part in creating more interactive displays, such as those in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, but other creative approaches to the presentation andinterpretation of exhibits provide new opportunities for group visits.

Groups can often venture ‘behind the scenes’ to see hidden parts of collections, arrange a personalised tour to focus on particular interests and benefit from an introductory talk on a particular theme or exhibition. The Geffrye Museum, in London, which explores the home over the past 400 years, has developed a good choice of talks for groups, from introductions to its history and collection to specialist lectures on English homes and the Geffrye Almshouses.

Different approaches to presentation and curating, such as linking items to personal stories, introducing contemporary short-term exhibitions and using hands on displays, help bring museums and their exhibitions to life. The Wellcome Collection in London, which explores the connections between medicine, life and art, takes an innovative approach to its shows, often mixing disciplines and display modes. Temporary exhibitions and special events are used to great effect and as Ken Arnold, Head of Public Programmes, reveals, “each exhibition brings a new sense of what we can do”.

The Wellcome Collection is involved in a new collaboration, First Time Out, (until 21st August) along with the Horniman Museum, Kew Gardens, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. The revolving exhibition highlights the different modes of interpretation and display that underpin museum practices. It sees each organisation select one previously unseen artefact from their archives, which moves around to a different institution and is displayed with a new label, written by the curatorial team of the host venue. Each object will rotate between the museums every 6 weeks.

Other practices, such as using costumed interpreters, are popular with living history museums to provide a more authentic experience. Milestones, in Hampshire, does this to great effect and encourages visitors to interact with the past through demonstrations, stories, plays and conversations with characters.

The majority of museums are well used to accommodating groups and GTOs should inquire about the range of benefits available to help make the most of a visit.