Winning tip: Old friends in Birmingham
I recently visited the newly reopened Barber Institute of Fine Arts at Birmingham University (free but advance booking essential). It was the last gallery I visited before lockdown, and the first since, and it was like seeing old friends. It is a little jewel of a gallery, with works by, among others, Simone Martini, Claude, Degas, Canaletto and, a personal favourite, a lively Gainsborough showing his two daughters clambering up into a hay cart. Housed in a listed art deco building, it is a lovely place to while away an hour, followed by a cake on the terrace at the nearby Winterbourne House (only the garden , not the house, currently open).
Concrete and lace, Nottingham
I’ve visited the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery in the city’s Lace Market area several times since lockdown ended. It’s a fabulous modern concrete building with imprints of lace on the exterior (pictured), large airy gallery spaces, and a really nice cafe and gift shop, all of which have been particularly therapeutic. An exhibition of Denzil Forrester’s paintings has recently finished and a new one has just opened including a hommage to Grace Jones and work by Berlin-based Jimmy Robert. It’s a great building to just wander into (for free) in a lovely historic part of the city and there’s always something interesting to look at.
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Carnegie haul, Dunfermline
The philanthropic influence of Andrew Carnegie is felt around the world, from libraries to theatres to museums. A visit to the free Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Dunfermline takes you back to the beginning of the story. From the tiny cottage where he lived with his family to his journey across the seas and ultimately huge international influence, the story is told in a way that is captivating for visitors of all ages. I am very proud to have this museum on my doorstep. It may be small but it packs a punch, perhaps like Andrew Carnegie himself. Capacity is reduced for Covid safety and online booking is essential.
Explosively good, Dumfries and Galloway
Overshadowed by Gretna’s wedding fame, the Devil’s Porridge Museum in Eastriggs pulls together the history of the northern Solway’s huge munitions factory (devil’s porridge was a name for the explosive cordite). Sadly none of the factory buildings remain and the land is contaminated with chemical waste, but through photos, information boards, dress-ups, machinery and interactive games, the museum explains how the manufacturing works employed thousands, mostly women, to make bombs through both world wars and up until the cold war. Stories and photos of the efforts and sacrifices made by these women make poignant reading.
• Adult £6, 5-16 years £5, family (2+3) £15
Almost like going clubbing, London
The Electronic exhibition at the Design Museum is the closest I think we will get to being in a club ever again. As soon as you walk in you can feel the carefully curated playlists of house, techno and drum’n’bass searing through you. It takes you down a fantastic trip down memory lane from the invention of the theremin to installations from Aphex Twin and Weirdcore, juke and footwork in Chicago and Detroit, all while not forgetting the origins of techno and house in the black community. Go for a late slot after a drink with a loved one and recreate the dancefloor.
• £16.30 adult, £12.15 student, £8.15 child, until 14 February 2021
Chill with Damien, London
I love Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in London’s Vauxhall, which reopened yesterday (7 October) with a new exhibition called End of a Century (until 7 March 2021). There’s no trolley rage like in some galleries as there’s so much space: each room has huge white walls and high ceilings so you can just enjoy the art and be completely absorbed in it without being bombarded by other input. This also makes it perfect for social distancing, and it’s free.
Medically uplifting, London
The Old Operating Theatre Museum at St Thomas’s Church in Southwark is wood-panelled and quiet, frozen in a time long before antiseptics or anaesthetics. Up narrow steps and across creaking floorboards is an airy ancient apothecary filled with mysterious potions and old cures. With sickness so in our minds now, seeing how far medicine has come feels uplifting. The winding steps and dry herbal air give the place a witchy, autumnal feel that’s magical, too.
• Booking essential: flat-rate ticket for up to six people, £20
Vicky Leech Mateos
Real-life mine-craft, West Yorkshire
The National Coalmining Museum in Overton, West Yorkshire, is a real adventure. We loved the tour “darn pit”, descending 140 metres underground in a decidedly cranky old lift (worth it to get the usually bored teens engaged!) where an ex-miner regaled us with historical tales about the mining experience. The guides absolutely make this place what it is. We loved meeting the horses and ponies and visiting the various galleries. Finishing off in the adventure playground completed a really fun, and free, educational day out.
• Only overground tours currently available, £2.10 booking fee for up to six people, advance booking only, donations encouraged
Art and coastal heritage, New Forest
St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington, Hampshire, is a gem. The main museum takes you through the local coastal history, showcasing finds such as the “Boldre hoard” of Roman coins. There is a real boat and interactive exhibits for children, as well as regular craft and community outreach events. The other half of the recently renovated building is a professional art gallery with local and national exhibits. The museum also has a lovely, locally run cafe and a shop that showcases the best of local craftspeople. I don’t think people realise it’s there, but a visit to Lymington isn’t complete without stopping by.
• Adult £6, 5-16 years £3, family (2+4) £12
Stateside style, Bath
High on the downs above Bath overlooking beautiful Limpley Stoke in the Avon valley sits the unique American Museum and Gardens. Remodelled two years ago the garden’s prairie-style plantings are breathtaking. Fascinating US rooms are recreated in the Claverton Manor house with decorative arts from four centuries. A grab-and-go cafe serves American favourites with all food freshly made on the premises. You enjoy your refreshments safely on a stunning terrace overlooking the gardens and valley. A new children’s playground has just opened. There’s no need to book in advance but the gardens are limited to 300 people per day and the Claverton Manor collection is operating chaperoned-only visits between 11am and 4pm .
• Adult £10, 5-17 years £7.50, family (2+3) £22.50, open Tuesday-Sunday
Arts and crafts and symbolism, Surrey
The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village is an idyllic site in the Surrey Hills, just a 10-minute bus ride from Guildford. The main gallery is filled the beautiful symbolist paintings of George Frederic Watts, with one room dedicated to the work of Evelyn and William De Morgan. Five minutes up the road is the Watts Mortuary Chapel, designed by Watts’ fellow artist and wife, Mary Fraser Tytler, and executed in superb arts and crafts style by members of the local parish.
• Adult £12.50, under-18 free
Horror to horology, Suffolk
Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds may only be small but houses an eclectic range of exhibits. The medieval building alone is worth a visit and as one of its former functions was as a police station, it fittingly has a crime and punishment section. Notable items include a disturbing gibbet cage and a death mask of a notorious 19th-century murderer. Much less alarming is the renowned collection of clocks and watches – I love the intricate decoration on the pocket watches.
• Adult £5, 5-16 years £3, family (2+5) £15
Spellbinding species, Cambridge
Cambridge’s recently revamped Museum of Zoology (free but book a slot online) is a lesser-known gem among unprepossessing concrete laboratory buildings. It reopened late last month. The place is spellbinding from the moment you enter under a suspended fin whale skeleton (pictured) and highlights include the towering frame of an extinct giant ground sloth, Darwin’s specimens from his Beagle voyage and, my personal favourite, a questionably taxidermied but endearing giant anteater.