In my time, I have visited lots of museums: on family holidays, filling in gaps before trains, for research, or just to have a look at the shop. I’ve even worked behind the scenes in a couple and I’m contemplating a career in the museum/heritage sector. So here’s a guide to a few of the more usual museums I’ve visited.
Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum
I’m going to start locally, with England’s only bagpipe museum, of world-renown. You may only know of the Scottish Highland Pipes, but they aren’t the only variety: bagpipes in various forms can be found all over Europe, though the Highland Pipes have benefited from having the best publicity machine and their high-profile use on battlefields throughout the British Empire. The bagpipe originated from around the Mediterranean, where reeds grow that can make a sound when they’re blown and fixed to a tube. One theory is that the instrument then travelled north with the Romans (ironically reaching Scotland last).
Clock maker WA Cocks started collecting pipes from around the world before World War 1, and later experimented making his own Northumbrian Small Pipes, developing innovations that laid the foundations for the instrument’s continuing evolution. The collection mainly focuses on the Northumbrian Pipes; unlike the Highland pipes, these are bellows blown and gradually developed extra keys to increase the pipes’ range of notes and tunes. They are quieter, and so can be played indoors – indeed for a while they were considered a more courtly instrument, and they are closely related to the French Musette de Cour which was popular under Louis XIV (a set of pipes that could well have been his is on display). The permanent exhibition goes through the development of the instrument from the medieval period to the present, with special cases highlighting different types of bagpipe from across Europe and even a 21st Century electronic set.
The museum is housed in Morpeth’s late-thirteenth century Chantry – a chapel by the river where monks would pray for paying people’s souls – in the centre of town, and hosts piping events such as the monthly meet of the Northumbrian Pipers’ Society. Downstairs are the Tourist Information Centre and a craft centre in case you fancy more information or a bit shop.
Opening times: Monday-Sat, 9am-5.30pm
Cumberland Pencil Museum – Keswick
Did you know that Raymond Briggs’ famous animation, “The Snowman” was drawn using just pencils from Keswick in Cumbria? Pencils have been made in Keswick since at least 1832 thanks to the area’s great natural supply of graphite. The current factory/museum was built in the 1920s and has displays showing the history of the pencil, starting in the age of Queen Elizabeth. For the technically-minded, there’s plenty of restored machinery to examine, and the museum has lots of activities for kids (because all kids love colouring – it’s a fact you can’t argue with).
If you’re an artist, the shop’s worth a visit because it is full of different kinds of pencils and pastels. The centre also runs tuition days for beginners and advanced artists, and family fun days.
I visited this place when I was much younger, so I don’t remember much apart from seeing the world’s biggest pencil. It’s 26 feet (7.91 metres) long, weighs 446.36 kilograms, and is actually a working pencil if you can pick it up and sharpen it. I also remember buying some “watercolour pencils” that were my favourite colouring-in set for years, thanks to their wide selection of greens and blues.
Admission: Adult £4.50/Student £4/Concessions and Children under 16 £3.50/Under 5s free/Family £12.50
Opening times: vary according to season, check website.
House of Bols – Amsterdam
Amsterdam has many unusual museums, several of which I’m waiting to see on my next trip (whenever that will be).This particular one is perhaps more of an “experience” than a straight-forward museum. Bols is a company who have made traditional genever (it’s a forerunner of gin) since 1820 and flavoured liqueurs since 1575. Aside from a history of the genever making process, the site has interactive displays that show how our senses of sight and smell can affect the perception of the flavours we taste. Of course, they also run cocktail workshops, and you can have a go at learning to be a flashy cocktail maker in the bar.
The House of Bols is on the Museumplein, in-between the Rijksmuseum, Modern Art Museum and Van Gogh Museum, so if you fancy a museum-crawl it’s well placed to be your last stop. It is pricey to enter – although my friend and I got 10% off thanks to a selection of discount cards in our hotel – but included in the price are two liqueur shot samples and one cocktail, which you select from a computer programme that analyses your taste preferences. However, it’s a bit sneaky, because once you leave the Mirror Bar, you’re straight into the shop where you’re much more likely to spend money if you’re tipsy.
I had before never left a museum pissed. Consider this the highest of recommendations.
Admission: €14.50 – save 10% and order online, or go on a Friday night after 5pm for only €9.50. BRING ID cause you’ve got to be over 18 to visit.
Opening times: 12pm-6.30pm, Fridays 12pm-10pm, Saturdays 12pm-8pm
La Specola – Florence
According to my Florence city guide this is “the strangest museum in the city” and I do not disagree with that statement. This is the University’s zoological museum, but it’s not all stuffed animals and butterflies. Though there are a whole lot of them: I counted four rooms of birds, which is quite impressive considering how small some of them are and how they didn’t look too mangled by the stuffing process. The collection covers most animals, I think, including spiders, tapeworms and creepy crawlies that had me checking around the door before entering each room so I wouldn’t be nastily surprised.
But ex-animals are not the main draw here. No, people come to see the anatomical waxworks. These sculptures were made in the late 18th century for medical students to study – back in the day they weren’t so good at keeping real dead bodies fresh enough – and range from body parts and systems to full human models with skin stripped away to show the layout of the muscles, internal organs and nervous system. Clemente Susini, the bloke who made most of them, had interesting ideas about making them lifelike, though. Despite their lack of skin, the dummies have faces and hair. One lass is even frozen in the act of twirling her plait through her fingers. Brrr. It’s probably just as well that the final room was closed for refurbishments when I visited. In here are four waxwork tableaus designed to horrify more than educate: three depict the plague in Florence, complete with rats crawling through piles of bodies, and one shows the “horrors of syphilis”.
A whole room is devoted to waxwork models of pregnancy and its complications in case you’re interested/want to be put off childbirth. All in all, an interesting museum but if you have it to yourself, like I did, the feeling of being watched by not-quite-living humans and animals is rather creepy.
Admission: Adult €6/Concession €3
Opening times: October-May 9.30-4.30pm/ June-September 10.30-17.30
Website: http://www.msn.unifi.it/ for Italian website