Reputedly Britain has 2,500 museums containing 170 million objects and herein lies the difficulty of selecting which are ‘the best’ and therefore worth visiting. Of course there is no simple answer as what makes one person’s great day out at a museum is not necessarily another’s! Museums are an art form in themselves, being able to translate a collection of inanimate objects into an engaging spectacle that both entertains and enriches the visitor.
Britain has some pedigree when it comes to the big and audacious style of museum. When the Great Exhibition of 1851 was opened in the purpose-built Crystal Palace, a giant prefabricated building of iron and glass, at Hyde Park, London, the whole world was transfixed. Conceived by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, this was the first international exhibition of its kind, and sought to educate the public by showing the best of British manufactured goods. Exhibits from around the world, especially Europe and also some from British dependencies further afield were also included. It would become highly influential in the development of a broad range of society including art and design, international trade and tourism. Even then, exhibitions were about presenting the art of the possible with cutting edge subject matter. It was estimated over six million people from all walks of life from across the UK and abroad attended the exibition.
Many of the objects on display at the Great Exhibition became part of the collection for three other museums founded shortly after, the Victoria and Albert museum, the Science museum and the Natural History museum, all in South Kensington, London. All three rank amongst Britain’s most popular and favourite museums today.
One of the most recent revolutions in Britain’s national museums has been the move from entry paying, to voluntary donations. This was precipitated by a change in government policy in 2001. In so doing, the trustees of the museums have opened them up to a broader cross section of visitors who might not otherwise have been attracted to visit museums or be able to afford entry. The downside is that the swollen visitor numbers do not necessarily translate to swollen funds for the on-going maintenance and enhancement of museum collections and facilities. Local authority contributions, grants and donations are inadequate to the task. Increasingly commercially minded, the managers of many of these great institutions have had to get creative with their revenue generation models. A visitor to a museum 20 years ago would hardly recognise the experience today. It is certainly challenging to leave any museum without first having opened your wallet on at least four occasions, at the donations box, in the souvenir shop, the café bar or tea rooms and of course at the ticket booth of the special show or touring fee-paying exhibition, which is most likely the reason you were attracted to visit the museum in the first place. Museums are brands in themselves and the presentation and style of their promotional materials, guidebooks, souvenirs, websites and social media presence and external livery have upped their game to higher level of professionalism.
IWM - London
There is a museum dedicated to every subject matter you can think of. If you are interested in surgery and transplants, then the Hunterian museum, Glasgow is for you. If the age of steam is your passion, then look no further than the National Railway Museum in York. Going to a museum has become far more experiential in recent years. Exhibits are made for interacting with and entertainment is suitable for all ages, a far cry from wandering acres of halls full of glass cases and static exhibits. This concept is taken up with full commitment at the Beamish museum, an open-air re-enactment of the coal mining communities in the late Victoria era, and an influential model for other ‘living museums’.
'To preserve the past is to save the future’ - Nanette L Avery
Please browse our gallery of selected great British Museums above for inspiration and enjoyment, and click on each of the images to find more useful information and links to help you appreciate or visit each one.