“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.” (ICOM definition 2007)

To have visited museums across 2016 in Paris, Rome, Budapest, Prague, Beaune, Malaga, Marbella, Madrid is something many would take years to achieve. The Louvre, Prado, Capitoline are all high on any tourists list, and to have got a ticket for the Hieronymous Bosch exhibition in Madrid was the peak of that list.
But sometimes we lose sight of what is on our own doorstep, never as glamorous as the ones on that list but often as exciting, informative or cultural. In the past month we have visited several within a 20 miles radius of our home: The Natural History Museum in Oxford, and the Steam Museum in Swindon and this is to highlight how much of that ICOM definition is right under our noses.

Natural History Museum, Oxford.
Housed in a neo-Gothic building designed by the Irish architects Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward, the overall design was directly influenced by the writings of critic John Ruskin of Lake District fame who involved himself by making various suggestions to Woodward during construction. Construction began in 1855 and was completed in 1860. Now you might be wondering why I am focusing on the building and not the exhibits, so I’ll let a few photos do my explaining!

Stunning isn’t it? Our jaws dropped as we walked in through the main entrance and for an hour all we could do was look up at the cast iron girders, the glass, the reflections. Most adults were doing the same though it was the children who were focusing on the displays. We can’t recommend this museum enough so if you are in or near Oxford, do visit. And…… it’s free!

Steam Museum, Swindon.

The museum is housed in a restored Grade II listed railway building which was part of the old Swindon Works of the Great Western Railway, which was one of the largest in the world operating from 1843 to 1986. In its heyday, it covered more than 300 acres and could turn out three locomotives per week. Opened in 1962 it moved to its new premises in 2000 and contains a wealth of exhibits from complete locomotives and carriages, to reconstructed platforms, ticket offices and workshops, as well as mechanical bits such as wheels, pistons, lamps and engineering tools. Large groups of children were having a great time climbing over the trains and playing with models and interactive displays. This time it was the exhibits that caught the eye, not the architecture, so here’s a sample:

I was so captivated with this museum I took out an annual membership which cost only Β£12 for as many visits as you want. Since then I have been back twice! In addition to the museum the Steam organisation have renovated all of the old railway workers cottages as a complete village, all are meticulously cared for by the occupants with tended front gardens, classic back streets, old lamps, uniform doors and windows. Worth a walk around too!

So, two museums nearby which would probably be visited more if they were in Paris or Rome or Madrid. But the ICOM definition is worth revisiting and remembering that it’s all about preserving our heritage, too often ignored now in this world of political correctness, globalisation and cultural Marxism.