Top 5 Fascinating Museums to Visit in the South West of England

General disclaimer: UK Government advice is for all citizens to stay indoors to combat the spread of Covid-19, please check and adhere to guidelines before making any travel plans.

This list could probably be two or three times larger but for the sake of a condensed and therefore readable article I’ve narrowed it down to five of my personal favourites. Visiting a good and well curated museum is a great way to spend an afternoon in my book and it also affords a certain insight into the culture and values of the location it’s situated in. Also, museums are often set in beautiful historic or thoughtfully designed buildings which is always a bonus as you can enjoy the whole experience, not just from the inside. 

As a general rule, if you hang something on a wall in a grand or minimalist space (such as a museum or gallery) people will regard it with more reverence and attention for better or worse. You are naturally drawn to spend more time appreciating and learning about great works of art, science and life when in a gallery or museum simply because you’re in a gallery or museum. These spaces lend themselves to, and are constructed with, visual appreciation in mind and for me, spending time passing through them is a lovely way to experience something different (hopefully!) and in a way to reset, gain a fresh perspective. 

The southwest of England is a wonderful part of the world to explore and travel around but as is often the case in the UK, the weather can not always be relied upon. Therefore waiting out the bad weather in a museum or gallery is probably the best way to pass the time!

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

This museum is a wonderful place to start this list off with and houses great collections of artefacts, paintings, sculptures and even a replica model of a boxkite plane which hangs overhead. The reason this museum deserves a place on this list is because of the phenomenal variety it contains spanning contemporary art, science, geology, taxidermy and much more. And all for free apart from an occasional charge for the changing temporary exhibitions.

I think one of the main reasons I love visiting the Bristol Museum is that with every visit, you’ll discover something new; there really is such an incredible amount on offer here. The exhibits are carefully curated to present wildlife native to the southwest alongside Egyptian and Assyrian archaeological finds. It’s a real treat to have so much historical content in such an amazing location, both in terms of the actual building which is grade II listed but also where it’s situated in the city. Easily accessible by foot or wheel the museum is a fantastic spot to spend a morning or afternoon wandering around. 

The Roman Baths

A short journey southeast from Bristol and you’ll find yourself in the quaint and picturesque city of Bath. Not only a wonderful spot for a city break because of the variety of rest and relaxation opportunities but also a city of great historical significance as it was settled by the Romans around 60AD as a spa town. So even from its origin, Bath has always been a place to unwind. And although the actual historic Roman baths are no longer open for public use, they’ve now been faithfully restored and operate as a wonderful museum. It’s really amazing to be taken 2000 years back in time to get a glimpse of what aspects of Roman life looked like. 

A tour through this museum is so unique because the site itself is the main attraction. You’re walking through something that was constructed two millennia ago which was used by an ancient civilisation! It’s quite the extraordinary experience. A tour through the Roman Baths will take you through the special historic site as well as adding a bit of colour by having costumed characters placed throughout, acting scenes that could well have been commonplace in this spa. The museum also exhibits a great number of Roman artefacts and archaeological finds from the surrounding areas. 

Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

Set in the gorgeous seaside town of St Ives, this art museum that began its life as artist Barbara Hepworth’s studio is a fabulous example of how effectively an artist’s home and workplace can be converted into space for public consumption. St Ives is famous for being the creative base of many renowned artists and was particularly so during and after the Second World War when Barbara and her husband (artist Ben Nicholson) formed the St Ives Group. Their work at that time focused on sculpture and artworks taking natural shapes and forms inspired by the wondrous nature of the area.

Even if you’re not a fan of Hepworth’s work or are simply unaware of it, the museum like the Roman Baths, offers an important insight into a special moment in history. Regardless of personal tastes, it’s a great opportunity to enjoy and walk around the once studio of a world-renowned artist. 

The museum holds many of her sculptures throughout the studio space as well as in the garden which is a real treat to view on a clear day. Sculptures are made with an intended setting in mind, usually in an outdoor space to be seen by the public as it interacts with its surroundings. Hepworth’s works are scattered throughout the globe and can be found in such far flung countries as Australia or Canada so it’s a real treat to be able to see a large collection of them in the artist’s own garden and studio.

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum

Situated right on the edge of the south coast overlooking the English channel is the Russell-Cotes museum, named after Merton Russell-Cotes who was owner of the Royal Bath Hotel. The building was originally intended as a gift to his wife Annie who later donated it to the town of Bournemouth. It now serves as a public museum and art gallery that houses the couple’s private collection from their worldwide travels during the late 19th century as well as newer acquisitions which were added in throughout the 20th century, many donated by prominent collectors. 

This extensive art collection is housed within a grade II listed Victorian house which is amply sized to display the wide range of notable paintings and sculptures. One of the main attractions is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Venus Verticordia which was secured thanks to assistance from the National Art Collections Fund and Percival Allam in 1946. The painting is considered to be one of Rossetti’s masterpieces and a visit to the museum is almost worth it for just this one painting. A truly remarkable image skillfully painted by a Pre-Raphaelite master. Of course the entire museum is well worth a visit, it wouldn’t be on my exclusive list if not!

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery

Finishing off the list is the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery which is sat in the centre of Exeter. Like the Bristol Museum, the building houses a wide and significant collection of art and artefacts from zoology, fine art, archaeology and much more. Another one that you can revisit over and over and still discover plenty of new treats. Founded in 1868 the building has undergone several extensive and expensive renovations which have secured this museum as one of the best in the southwest. 

There really is something for everyone here, a perfect museum to explore while the kids are entertained too. They’ve catered to families by including regularly updated activities for youngsters to discover during their visit. A thoroughly recommended trip!

The southwest of England obviously has plenty more fantastic museums and galleries to explore that simply didn’t make it to my list. The above 5 are a starting point from which you’ll get a good taste for the land and culture of the south. A great bonus of the majority of museums in the UK is that they’re all free unless privately owned, however I’ll always try to give a donation to show my appreciation. The past year has really made me aware of how appreciative I should be for being able to visit these museums in the past so now I look forward to future opportunities  to explore and see more wonders contained in these magnificent buildings. 

Author bio:

Jess Cleave works for Oak Tree Parks who have over 50 years experience in running quality residential retirement parks and owner occupied holiday parks in the South West of England.