After living in Bristol for three years, I realised I’d only ever been to the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery once. Which is exceptionally pitiful when I tell you I work five minutes away. So over the past few weeks, I’ve been popping in during my lunch breaks to explore this amazing (and deceptively small-looking) building to see what I’ve been missing. My conclusion, for those too lazy to read to the end, is that Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery is brilliant – way better than the M Shed, which I’ve also written about but less flatteringly.
Owned and run by Bristol City Council, the FREE museum features a labyrinth of rooms, all housing a varied hotchpotch of exhibits, many of which rub shoulders with seemingly unrelated items in a wonderfully charming manner.
But let’s start with the building itself, which is beautiful. Situated at the top of Park Street, it is a grandly imposing Edwardian Baroque-style structure that quite rightly is grade II* listed. Having previously been housed further down Park Street, the museum as we now know it opened in February 1905 and has evolved and expanded ever since.
Going up the stone steps, through the pillars and through the glass doors, you arrive in a cavernous and imposing entrance hall, with a wonderful jamboree of features. Above your head is suspended an enormous replica flying machine, to one side is a Banksy angel with a paint pot on her head, and elsewhere are Egyptian vases. This should give you an indication of the mixed bag you’re in for. Rolling up my sleeves, I dive in.
The museum is well known for it’s impressive and expansive collection of artifacts from Ancient Egypt in a permanent exhibition on the ground floor. From a child’s garment, to tools and a stunning collection of sarcophaguses, nothing is overlooked. Where this collection really comes into its own is with the computerised display that considered the options when a mummy owned by the collection started to rot in the 1970s. The results are mesmerising. Elsewhere, you have the option to look at the remains of a once mummified man – which leads to some thought provoking discussions about the ethics of exhibiting human remains.
Back out in the main hallway, take some time to stand in awe at the enormous “Departure of Cabot” painting by Ernest Board, in which the great and the good of Bristol saw John Cabot off on his exploration. Turn around and there’s a colossal Chinese water fountain from 1993 behind you. Look up and see an enormous replica Box Kite. Glance back down, and see Banksy’s angel with a paint pot on her head as a reminder of the famous 2009 exhibition held here. All housed in an ornately designed hallway with the names of famous painters carved into the stonework, embroidered banners hanging down, and a magnificently mammoth chandelier.
Further back on the ground floor, you pass a case with a polar bear skeleton in on your way to the Curiosity gallery (see what I mean about charming incongruities in locations). This is a little erratic for my tastes, though I am distracted by the poster leading me in, which has three people photographed – one of whom is Big Jeff, well known to Bristolian gig goers as the wild-haired man who is always bouncing at the front, while boasting an unmatched knack to headbang at the most unlikely of gigs (eg, Midlake at the Anson Rooms in 2009).
At the far end of the ground floor is the café (even if you’re not hungry, put your head in and admire the mega chimney piece on the far wall), but whatever you do, do not overlook the costume jewellery exhibition in an alcove in front of the café. You can’t miss it, it’s just past the colossal 18th century Chinese bell! Seemingly tucked away in a nook that many might bypass, the costume jewellery collection (which extends around a few windy corners, so it’s worth being nosy) is beautiful. And after peering intently at rows and rows of displays, I was delighted to spot an early Women’s Social & Political Union pin from the suffragette movement (stand up, sister suffragette!).
Up the marble staircase, and – depending on which staircase you took and whether you looked left or right at the top – you’ll find yourself starting to realise just how expansive this museum really is. After 10+ visits, I was still finding rooms and nooks I’d previously overlooked… and still remain unconvinced I’ve found all the collections!
The first floor houses, among others, a historic collection of pianos, a gypsy caravan, the geology and mineral collections (check out the Bristol diamonds – sparkly), the Bristol dinosaur, endlessly fascinating maps of ye olde Bristol through the centuries around the balcony, and the famous wildlife collection of taxidermy creatures. Whether it’s the much-loved gorilla Alfred (who lived at Bristol Zoo until his death in 1948), or lesser-spotted birds, a hunted tiger or a pair of hippos… this is an comprehensive collection, housed in a charmingly old-fashioned manner of cabinets – many of which spot hand-writted, calligraphy information boards (presumably they also date from the pre-computer era).
There’s some controversy about whether it’s gruesome or unethical to display the stuffed carcasses of dead creatures in this way, and I’m a little torn to both sides of the argument. However, ultimately, I’d veer towards celebrating this impressive collection as an antiquated example of the way people used to treat the unknown.
We’re not done yet, not by a long shot. So catch your breath, and get set to head up to the even larger second floor – before wondering how it is possible for the second floor to seem larger than the floor on which it rests.
Here, things become even more twisty and turny in terms of corridors and secret rooms to discover on multiple visits. Fill your curio boots. The second floor is definitely my favourite of the whole museum, not least because this is where the seven art galleries are housed, but also because it’s generally less populated by fellow visitors – affording you some much-deserved solitude and quiet in which to sit on a bench in one of the many rooms, and quietly take in your surroundings in these rooms full of artistic masterpieces and centuries old silverworks, knowing you are but metres away from the bustling activity of Park Street in the centre of a city.
There’s not a chance that I’ve seen everything up here… but goddamit, I’ve put the effort in. However, on my travels so far, I’ve taken in the pottery and ceramics, and stumbled on a tucked away (yet enormous) room filled with a celebration of a donated collection of Chinese dragons (seriously – why haven’t you been here?). Interspersed among the collections are locally made glassware, silverware, pottery and more, all of which are informed by the wider examples around them, and most of which are intricately described in the accompanying information.
However, the art galleries are where I really feel at peace. With seven to choose from, you’ll be spoilt for choice, but you can always sift through the genres and find the space that best suits your mood. Whether it’s a Pierre-Auguste Renoir you’re after, a Barbara Hepworth lithograph, the obligatory Beryl Cook, or a more contemporary installation by Richard Long… there are oodles to choose from.
Overall… as you’ll have gathered, I’m a keen fan of Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery. I’m thinking of volunteering some time to work here, that’s how much I love it. We should celebrate this amazing treasure in the middle of our wonderful city and if, like me, you’ve walked past a hundred times and always meant to pop in, then do yourself a favour and bump it up to the top of your to-do list. You really won’t regret it.