We visited a major new museum last week. Epic in scale, lofty without and cavernous within, an anthem to architectural ambition. We ought to have been terribly impressed. Alas, it was a ghastly, soulless bunker that utterly failed to convey any sense of humanity or to communicate a collection.
Rather than rant about ziggurats of ego, let us celebrate instead those museums small in size but great of heart. There are many small and beautiful museums in these Islands, built upon the two fundamentals of an interesting story and a warm welcome. Here are six of our favourites, especially selected to ensure a good geographical and thematic spread.
Skye Museum of Island Life, Scotland
Few museums in the world can rival the setting of the Skye Museum of Island Life, perched on the northern cliffs of this magical island. The rebuilt crofters' cottages look over the waters where the nice Norse rowed their longships and Bonny Prince Charlie sailed and sank his ship of dreams.
The view from Skye Museum to eternity
The cottages show us life as an islander in the 19th century when people scraped a living from subsistence farming and fishing, scoured by the wind, battered by the seas. There are many bigger and grander museums of rural life but this is small, beautiful and very special. The people of Skye and the Hebrides built their cottages to withstand the Atlantic weather so they hug the ground with their rugged stone walls and thick thatch. Although tiny by modern standards, they are accessible as they are all just one storey. The museum costs just £2.50 for an adult but the views are unlimited and free!
Next door to the museum is the churchyard where Flora Macdonald and Alexander McQueen rest amidst beauty for eternity. Please spare them a thought and visit them too.
The last resting place of Flora Macdonald
Grace Darling Museum, Bamburgh, Northumberland
Helen of Troy was described by Kit Marlowe as the face that launched a thousand ships, starting a war which cost thousands of lives. Grace Darling is the heart that has launched thousands of lifeboats, saving 150,000 lives.
Saved by Grace
Grace Darling and her father ran the Longstone lighthouse off the weather-wracked Coast of Northumberland. On 7 September 1838, Grace and her father rowed a small boat through a howling storm to rescue the shipwrecked sailors of the Forfarshire which had foundered on the ragged rocks of the Farne Islands. Without her courage and strength the sailors' lives would have been consumed by the cruel sea. The Grace Darling Museum tells the inspiring story of her bravery and endeavour in a recently rebuilt museum housing a wonderful collection of her personal possessions.
The Grace Darling Museum
Not only are her letters and clothing on display but also the actual boat she rowed through the storm on that fateful night in 1838. One can’t fail to be moved.
The museum has good level access throughout with a lift to the upper floor. FREE entry.
78 Derngate, Northampton
The UK and Ireland are blessed with thousands of Tudorbethan and Palladian stately homes and mansions. Many are cared for by the major heritage organisations, some by local authorities and a few are still in family ownership. Amidst all this historical treasure one jewel shines out. 78 Derngate is the only Charles Rennie Mackintosh house outside of Scotland. CRM's masterpieces in Glasgow are well known, especially the School of Art, recently ravaged by fire. 78 Derngate displays the same brilliance in visual design and ingenuity in packaging as the School of Art. The house was remodelled between 1916 and 1917 as a collaboration between the brilliant architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and equally brilliant engineer, Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke. CRM designed 78 Derngate so light cascades down the central stairs, illuminating the stunning hall lounge from within.
The Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Hall Lounge of 78 Derngate c.1920. Credit & copyright 78 Derngate Northampton Trust
A shining Art Deco jewel. Credit & copyright 78 Derngate Northampton Trust
Thrillingly radical even today, the interior spaces of 78 Derngate rocked the staid society of Northampton who were used to Victorian and Edwardian solemnity.
The house is preserved and presented as it was when the Bassett-Lowkes lived there from 1916 to 1926. An extension added in 2007 gives access to all floors via a lift and houses a museum telling the story of Bassett-Lowke and the crucial role he played in war. 78 Derngate is a most stylish Art Deco family home and also the place where the most crucial technological innovation was made in WW1. A letter from Prime Minister David Lloyd George to Bassett-Lowke attests to his vital contribution. The new extension houses a very pleasant restaurant and shop and is also used as the venue for an interesting program of events, talks and activities.
Standard entry is £6.70 with discounts and concessions available. It is worth every penny – a unique and special family home that is utterly stylish and totally practical.
Hurdy Gurdy Radio Museum, Ireland
Hurdy Gurdy, not a tower of radio silence. Credit HG Museum
Housed within a Martello tower, a 19th century artillery fort, this fascinating little museum boasts an incredible collection of vintage radios, including Radio Ham equipment. For five decades radio was the dominant entertainment and information medium, reaching a war-winning zenith in WW2. The collection documents technological advances and changes in fashion and style. Vintage radios were often housed in attractive cabinets and were both miniature architecture in form and quality carpentry in construction.
Radio GaGa. Credit: Hurdy Gurdy Museum
The growth of consumerism in the 1950s saw new materials and radical styles replace the traditional wooden cabinets. Nowadays, minimalist black boxes are designed to be heard but not seen. Hurdy Gurdy invites us to enjoy an age when the wireless was designed to be seen and heard and the whole country sailed upon the radio waves.
Martello forts were built for defence rather than access for all so there is no lift to the upper floors. There's a wealth of great cafés, pubs and restaurants around the museum and the local speciality is seafood. Adult entry is €5 http://hurdygurdyradiomuseum.wordpress.com
Welsh Highland Railway, Cymru
25 miles of preserved narrow-gauge steam railway may not be small in size but it is big in beauty.
Glorious Cymru. credit Welsh Highland Railway
A dedicated team of volunteers toiled for many years to rebuild and reopen this brilliant railway as it was closed and lifted in the thirties and forties. There are preserved railways all over the country but this is our favourite.
Cutting the hard way, by hand. credit Welsh Highland Railway
The route through the heart of Snowdonia is breathtakingly beautiful and passengers can travel in luxury Pullman cars, standard carriages or in open sided trucks. As much as we enjoyed the luxury of Pullman travel, it was the open sided trucks with hard benches that we really enjoyed, hearing and smelling the Welsh countryside and tasting the coal smoke as the little locos hauled us over the mountains. I even achieved a life-ambition by firing and driving a steam locomotive over a short stretch.
Ticket prices vary, but the cheap seats are the best! You can also visit the stations and see the trains for free.
Our pilgrimage to the small and beautiful began with a tirade against the large and brutal. One man, more than any other, was the champion of humanity and beauty in architecture and design. William Morris taught us that good design is about creating something of beauty that will be a joy forever. His own home at Kelmscott in Gloucs is a heritage hymn of harmony in stone, timber and tapestry. Built in the 17th century and lovingly remodelled and furnished by Morris.
Kelmscott Manor, gentle stone without and tender timber within. Copyright Kelmscott Manor: Society of Antiquaries of London
He believed in the best of all and for all, realising his vision in buildings, furnishings and print. Kelmscott houses a great collection of the works he created in the place that inspired them. There are also paintings by his friend Rossetti, many of which were transformed into tapestries by Morris & Co. as well as items by Benson, Burne-Jones, and Webb, the pre-eminent pre-Raphaelites.
There is no lift to the upper floors but the lovely tea-room is fully accessible.
The art and craft of tea and cake. Copyright Kelmscott Manor: Society of Antiquaries of London
Kelmscott Manor was shortlisted at the M+H Awards 2014 as the UK's Most Inspiring Museum or Heritage Attraction. Standard entry is £9 but one can spend a long happy day exploring the house and gardens.
The massive, morose, modern museum made us angry, frustrated and depressed. Kelmscott, by happy contrast, enfolds us with warmth and fills us with delight. May small beauty and the spirit of William Morris ever defeat the ghastly giants of ego and brutality.Back to top