Celebrating International Museum Day with Bristol Museums

Louise Holland
Social Media Executive | Business West
16th May 2024

International Museum Day (IMD) is held annually around the 18th of May, every year since 1977. The day is coordinated by the national Council of Museums (ICOM) to shine a light on museums and the international museum community.  

This year the theme of the week is “Museums for Education and Research” highlighting the essential role these cultural institutions play in education and research, helping us better understand the world.  

In celebration of IMD we spoke to Bristol Museums, part of Bristol City Council, who gave us insight into how a civic museum service functions in a city, why they are so important and how businesses can support their work.  

Read our interview with them below. 

Tell us about your organisation and what role do you have within the city?  

The museums are part of Bristol Culture & Creative Industries, which is a service of Bristol City Council.

Included in these industries are:  

Bristol Museums has the role of managing Bristol’s five civic museums, which are: 

  • Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, the original civic museum, has internationally renowned and varied collections gathered across the last 200 years from all over the world, the country and region, which are presented in 19 galleries. 
  • M Shed tells the story of Bristol through its neighbourhoods, communities and the lives of Bristolians as well as its industrial heritage and offers everything from train and crane rides to boat trips, walks and talks. 
  • Blaise Museum at Henbury presents a varied domestic social history collection within a stunning building set in expansive parkland. 
  • The Georgian House Museum, once home of the Pinney family and Pero (of Pero’s Bridge fame), is a more intimate ‘house museum’ with period furniture, objects, stories and a very special atmosphere. 
  • The Red Lodge Museum is a fabulous post-Tudor building that has been a banqueting house and a girls’ reform school among other things. 

We also have Kings Weston Roman Villa at Lawrence Weston. There are more than four million objects across the collections, and at Bristol Archives, 10 miles of information-packed shelving hold the story of Bristol and its people through more than eight centuries. 

Why are museums so important?  

Museums are important for so many reasons. Fundamentally, museums and galleries provide an insight into human history; the lessons we can learn from past events, wonders, and tragedies are priceless and especially valuable in times of profound change.  

Museums also help create unity by providing a sense of community and attachment to place, and by celebrating a collective heritage. They are hubs for innovation and creativity with modern technology transforming museums from spaces of looking and learning to spaces of interaction, participation and engagement. 

On a day-to-day basis this means that: 

  • We conserve and preserve delicate objects in climate-controlled environments to remain accessible to researchers and members of the public and to continue telling the rich and varied story of Bristol’s development as a world trading city.  
  • We play a huge part in education. From school visits which open a world of wonder from books and learning plans which support the curriculum to loan objects which enable SEND pupils or those being home schooled to experience the magic of history and ensure that every child has a happy museum experience. 
  • We provide a space for wellbeing; some of this is through targeted workshop programmes, but equally, anyone can come in, sit in a peaceful art gallery away from the cold and wet weather and find focus and tranquility – a bit like the benefits of being out in nature. 
  • We are also a fun, free place to visit which is invaluable for families. The collections are owned by the people of Bristol. It’s our honour to share with the city's residents the wealth of information, inspiration, wonder and beauty that their collections offer.  

Museums tell stories that connect places distant in geography and time and share different people’s experiences which fosters understanding and dialogue. That’s why it’s so important that museums like Bristol’s remain living, developing places, collecting new material, and representing the changing face of the city. 

How do museums help learning and education?  

Last year we hosted 43,000 visits from school pupils. This year we’re aiming to have more than 45,000 school pupils visit.  

Most schools in the Bristol area bring their classes every year or two for independent visits or for workshops led by our expert educators. There is so much material that can bring the curriculum to life, from junior school classes studying Stone Age to Iron Age history, to Key Stage 4 students who might be studying philosophy or the history of the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved people.  

We get amazing feedback from schools, and if you’ve ever been in one of the museums when classes are in you will know from the noise how much joyous excitement it generates! 

There are also CPD programmes for teachers and Home Educating Families and lots of resources people can use on their own visits, at home or in the classroom to support learning. 

We do a lot of work that is ‘informal learning’ with the emphasis on fun, but still educational. We have free creative workshops for families in school holidays, fun days like Bristol’s Brilliant Archaeology at Blaise, take part in Festival of Nature, and much more. 

Learning doesn’t stop with children, either. Every time anyone visits a museum they are learning. There are totally unique learning experiences on offer, like have-a-go days on our trains and cranes, and programmes of talks and lectures which are wildly eclectic. 

What research do museums do/are they a part of?  

Bristol Museums facilitates research from academics, scientists, and creatives all the time, from high profile figures like historian, writer and professor, David Olusoga and academic, TV presenter and author Alice Roberts to early career artists and students.  

Biologists and environmental scientists use our biology collections, for example, to help understand how local species have changed or disappeared over the centuries and where that change might be heading as the climate warms.  

Our butterfly and moth collections are particularly valuable in this respect, and we have started involving the public in helping to digitise the vast numbers of specimens.  

We have been involved in research with institutions in Jamaica about the scientifically significant Broughton Herbarium (pressed plant collection), and locally exploring its legacies through community work, artists, and historians. 

Our geology collections draw researchers from around the world and support exciting new scientific discoveries. Recent examples include new species of fossil insects and gigantic ichthyosaurs that could be the largest ever marine reptiles.  

The collections also support research into under-represented histories, such as palaeontologist Mary Anning and how her work was used by Bristol scientists but not properly acknowledged.   

In 2025, we hope to launch a new natural sciences research space to support this kind of work and make it more accessible to students and citizen scientists. 

Both universities regularly draw on our collections, and you can find some accounts of students' research on our website blog, such as: 

Decorated wall fragments from the funerary temple of Mentuhotep II in Bristol Museum & Art Gallery | Bristol Museums

Decolonising the Bristol Archives catalogue | Bristol Museums

We regularly loan out items, particularly art works, to national and international exhibitions and art historians use our collections online and visit our stores. We have hosted many artist research residencies and drawing trips in our stores and archives.  

Bristol Archives, of course, is a treasure trove for researchers of all levels and backgrounds, from those making their family trees to professional historians and programme-makers.  

What value do museums bring to the local area?  

Museums like these play a big part in the tourism ecology of the city and region. We are one of the reasons people come to the city, attracting more than 750,000 visitors annually.  

When people come here, they spend money and help sustain the local economy.  

The international nature of the collections held here also enable conversations and connections globally, sustaining ‘Brand Bristol’ as a destination for inward investment and R&D. 

What do you value most about the museums in the region?  

The variety, the way we work together within the city and across the South West, the way we are open to collaboration with universities and businesses, and the way we continually connect with communities across the city. 

We also value and appreciate the way that we can provide sanctuary, safety, a warm place to be and for people to explore on repeated visits.  

There is an incredible array of museums in the region, we are so lucky to have them. Most of them are supported in some capacity by Museums Development South West which is also in our portfolio.  

In Bristol there is the fantastic SS Great Britain and Brunel Museum, RWA, Glenside Hospital Museum, Aerospace Bristol and many more including smaller private and community-led ones like the Kingswood Heritage Museum and the Stradling Collection. In Bath there are tons too: the Roman Baths of course, the exquisite Holburne Museum, Victora Art Gallery, Fashion Museum, East Asian Art, the American Museum and more. And the wider South West is home to gems such as the quirky Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle.  

How can local businesses get involved? 

So much of the amazing work Bristol Museums does is made possible by working in partnership with local and regional business. The Bristol Initiative is all about partnership and making our city and region a better place by working together. If you are interested in how your business can partner with Bristol Museums, we would love to talk.  

You can email development@bristol.gov.uk to organise a coffee and chat in one of our lovely museums and historic houses any time. Check out our website for more information: Involve your company | Bristol Museums

Thank you to our current Corporate Members and Exhibition Sponsors. 

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