Travel

10 of Britain’s best small museums, chosen by readers


Winning tip: When king coal ruled Somerset

Somerset is saddled with stereotypes: cider, cheddar cheese and yokels who say ooh-arhh a lot. Few people know that for more than 250 years it was the centre of an advanced and highly mechanised coal industry covering an area greater than the Levels. The industry, its technology, characters, tragedies and distinctive way of life are on show at the superlative Radstock Museum. It’s a beautifully laid-out, informative, often poignant gem barely 10 miles from Bath, and much less predictable than that city’s museum offerings.
Reopens 2 June, 2pm-5pm Wed, 11am-5pm Sat, 2pm-5pm Sun; then from 6 July 2-5pm Tues-Sun and 11am-5pm Sat, free entry until end of August, donations encouraged
Christopher Inge

Beauty and the beach, Bournemouth

The Russell Cotes Museum and Art Gallery gardens
Art nouveau and pre-Raphaelite art both feature at the Russell-Cotes. Photograph: Gregory Davies/Alamy

The Russell-Cotes art gallery is beckoning our family back if we go to Bournemouth after it all reopens. It may be the nearest museum and gallery to a beach in the UK, as we discovered last summer, when we chanced upon it 200 metres from the sea and pier after a hot day sunbathing and swimming. It was so good we spent several hours wandering around the beautiful building, enjoying art nouveau tiled ceilings and pre-Raphaelite paintings. It’s an elegant, lovingly maintained old Victorian house. We want to spend time on the tea terrace with sea views to complete a sensual, arty afternoon.
Reopens 18 May, 10am-5pm Tue-Sun, adult £7.50, 5-17s £4
Nigel Cox

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Something Specials, Coventry

Reminders of 2 tone – singer Pauline Black of The Selecter.
Reminders of 2 tone: singer Pauline Black of The Selecter. Photograph: Lynn Goldsmith/Getty Images

Coventry Music Museum will take you back
To 2 Tone gigs of white and black
And Top of the Pops on Thursday nights
Pork pie hats and tonic suits
Reggae dancing, Doc Marten boots
The best three quid you’ll ever spend
The museum’s Ghost Town to Host Town exhibition opens on 20 May (£4, £2 kids and concessions, open Thur-Sun), phone ahead (0797 117 1441) to book
Nick Knibb

Knit wits, Nottinghamshire

The sock knitting room at the Framework Knitters Museum
The sock knitting room at the Framework Knitters Museum. Photograph: lowefoto/Alamy

I know, I know, a museum about knitting? (Stifled yawn). But Framework Knitters Museumin Ruddington is so much more – from interactive videos such as “Breaking The Frame”– to find out if you would have supported the Framebreakers – to the history of Ned Ludd and the Luddite movement and even a pair of Queen Victoria’s stockings! The museum is attached to a cottage where you can see how the workers would have lived and get an idea of their working conditions. There are regular displays of working “frames”, an art gallery and wonderful tea and cakes.
Behind the Scenes days 6-12 June for pre-booked groups, full reopening late summer, with new shop and exhibition space and more cottage rooms, adult £5, 5-15 years £2
Andrew

Steaming ahead, Wiltshire

The pump house at Crofton Beam Engines, Kennet and Avon Canal.
The pump house at Crofton Beam Engines, Kennet and Avon Canal. Photograph: Christine Strover/Alamy

Set beside the beautiful Kennet and Avon canal south of Marlborough, Crofton Beam Engines are an awe-inspiring triumph of industrial engineering from the age of steam. The huge iron pumps kept water levels topped up at the highest point of the canal linking London to Bristol. I love the contrast between the tranquility of the surroundings and the reminder of the power of the Industrial Revolution. If you can, visit on a steaming day and see these monoliths in action.
Reopens 22 May, Tues-Sun 10.30am-4.30pm, self-guided tour £5 adult, under-16 free
Kim

West African society and the horrors of slavery, Liverpool

International Slavery Museum in Liverpool
The slavery museum not only explores slave trade history but the sophistication of West African society before the arrival of Europeans. Photograph: Ed Rooney/Alamy

Interest in transatlantic slavery is running high, so staycationers are advised to book early for the International Slavery Museum. Some displays remain closed but multimedia exhibits in the Middle Passage gallery will leave patrons open-mouthed at the horrors endured. (Tip: don’t bypass the window overlooking the graving docks.) The Life in West Africa and Legacy galleries do more: they will open minds to the sophistication of West African society prior to the landing of Europeans, and Black achievement notwithstanding contemporary discrimination.
Reopens 18 May, 10am to 6pm Tues-Sun, free but donations requested
Lee P Ruddin

Bagpuss at the Beaney, Canterbury

Artefacts from pilgrims are among the attractions at Beaney House, Canterbury.
Artefacts from pilgrims are among the attractions at Beaney House, Canterbury. Photograph: Tim Stubbings/Alamy

The original Bagpuss, “saggy old cloth cat” and beloved title character of the 1970s children’s TV show, is just one highlight of the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge. Bagpuss resided in a shop for lost items, with each episode exploring the story of a different object. The Beaney, a striking Tudor revival building, is a place to explore the stories of a range of exhibits, from paintings to pilgrim badges, old and new artefacts from Canterbury and beyond, and has something to interest all ages of visitor.
Reopens 18 May, 10am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, 10am-4pm Sat, free but book timed entry in advance
Sharon Pinner

Croft story, Orkney

Cra’as Nest crofting museum, Orkney
A dresser and other ancient furnishings in the restored croft on Hoy. Photograph: Paul Kirkwood

The Cra’as Nest Museum at Rackwick on Hoy in the Orkney Islands is in a restored 18th-century croft, complete with dresser and two box beds as well as a byre and barn with a kiln for drying oats. The museum tells the unlikely story of two tailors, both sons of Hoy crofters, who invented the suspender clasp based on a device originally used to hold up baggy farm dungarees. They patented their idea of a clasp in the US because of the outrage that would’ve be caused by such a concept in their tight-knit Victorian community.
Open daily, free
Paul Kirkwood

Back before Broadchurch, Dorset

West Bay Discovery Centre, Dorset
Storms, shipwrecks, Victorian resort history are among subjects brought to live in West Bay’s museum. Photograph: Karen Heaney

West Bay Discovery Centre is so close to the beach you can hear the surf pounding on the shingle. Run by super-helpful volunteers, this small, child-friendly museum punches way above its weight. Through a fantastic collection of artefacts and archive photographs, it provides a fascinating insight into West Bay’s past, from its shipbuilding heyday, through its reinvention as a Victorian resort, to recent fame as the location for the TV series Broadchurch. It’s strong on natural history too, with interactive exhibits about the geology and wildlife of the Jurassic Coast, its storms and shipwrecks.
Reopens 18 May, 11am-4pm Tues-Sun, free
Karen Heaney

Town and country, Reading

Main exhibition space at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading.
Main exhibition space at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading. Photograph: Edmund Sumner/Alamy

The Museum of English Rural Life, part of Reading University, has a vast and fascinating collection chronicling the changes in countryside life since 1750. Everyone will find their own favourite objects and insights among the diverse displays. Unexpectedly, I loved the collection of farm wagons, whose distinctive designs reveal their region of origin. Visitors are greeted by a wonderfully meditative animation, showing a rural landscape shifting through the seasons. Upstairs, you can peek behind the scenes, and browse rows of meticulously labelled objects in open storage. The nostalgia extends to books: the museum has an impressive collection of Ladybird books on display.
Reopens 18 May, 9am-5pm Tues-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat, Sun, free but donation recommended
Mary



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