We use the term “museums” on this website for want of something more appropriate, but you should not assume that everything on this page is covered in dust, in old glass cases or accompanied by paragraphs of poorly typed dull narrative.
For the size of its population Norfolk has a surprisingly large number of museums and collections and although some have a huge range of subject matters, there is also an eclectic mix of museums, both indoor and outdoor, with a more specialist theme and there are some real gems amongst them.
The range subjects covered by the listings on this page and linked form it is vast and many of the attractions comprise significant collections, some of world-class importance, that are presented in manner to thrill, delight and educate. These days, a museum that fails to do so doesn't survive and some of the attractions referred to here have a significant heritage.
Our challenge was how to list subjects as varied as tanks, textiles, steam trains, the Elizabethans, mustard, aircraft, gas, traction engines, organs, fairground rides, warreners, Canaletto, sea-faring, Admiral Lord Nelson, Egyptology, agriculture, the Norwich School of artists and life in the workhouse¡
On this page you’ll find the larger museums and galleries with a broader range of collections. But you may also be interested in some of the other attractions which some might place under the loose description of museums. And so, we’ve linked below to collections relating to:
and, of course, there are also the collections and contents of the many historic homes and houses.
Norwich Castle Museum
The jewel in the crown must surely be Norwich Castle Museum, set principally in the keep of the superbly preserved Norman castle, which has also served as a gaol in its more recent history of over almost a millennium, a rôle which some of the exhibits depict. The museum, which opened in 1894 and was extensively refurbished in 2000, includes a teapot gallery, decorative arts galleries, art collections, a Boudica gallery, an Anglo Saxon and Viking Gallery, an Egyptian gallery and the natural history galleries, where the dioramas have recently been refurbished
The museum is very child-friendly, with many hands-on aspects, particularly in the Castle Keep, and the dungeons and battlements can be toured daily.
Nowhere can you see the range and variety of British teapots better than in the museum’s Twining Teapot Gallery. The museum is home to Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service’s collection of over 3,000 teapots. They range from the elegant to the quirky and date from the 1730s right through to the 1980s.
There are two permanent art galleries and two exhibition galleries. The permanent collections include works spanning the 17th to 20th century. Norwich Castle possesses the largest collection of paintings in existence by artists of the Norwich School, most of which were bequeathed by Jeremiah James Colman, founder of Colman’s Mustard, and his son Russell James Colman.
This group of artists lived and worked in Norwich in the first half of the nineteenth century and found inspiration in Norfolk’s broad skies, flat countryside and varied coastline - John Crome and John Sell Cotman were its most distinguished members.
Other works on permanent display provide an historic context for the celebrated Norwich School, they consist of works by artists such as Sir Alfred Munnings, Thomas Gainsborough and the Dutch School. All the paintings have connections to East Anglia, some more obvious than others.
Stranger’s Hall, Norwich
Also in Norwich is the Stranger’s Hall, one of Norwich’s oldest and most fascinating buildings.
This sizeable merchant’s house, dating from 1320 with many later additions, looks to bring the days of the Tudors and Stuarts vividly to life through a trip around a maze of interlinked rooms enriched with textiles and period objects including clothing, furniture, toys and games and meal settings. There are many activity days, with the very friendly and knowledgeable staff dressed in period costume and there’s also a 17th century knot garden.
The Bridewell, Norwich
The Bridewell started life as a rich merchant’s house in 1325. It became a prison for women and beggars (a ‘Bridewell’) in 1585 and in the mid 18th century became a conventional prison. From 1828 it earned its keep as a factory and warehouse for tobacco, leather, boots and shoes. It became a museum in 1925 and now houses a wonderful collection of historic objects and machinery revealing how Norwich people earned their living and spent their leisure time.
The Bridewell is currently undergoing a £1.5 million redevelopment project and is scheduled to re-open in the summer of 2012.
The Tollhouse, Great Yarmouth
The Toll House in Great Yarmouth is one of the UK’s oldest gaols, dating back to the 12th century, where visitors can see the original cells and discover the fate of thieves, smugglers, witches, pirates and murderers and, using the free audio guide, hear the gaoler and his prisoners describe their experiences.
Elizabethan House Museum, Great Yarmouth
Visitors to the Elizabethan House Museum in Great Yarmouth can experience the lives of families who lived in this splendid Quayside house from Tudor to Victorian times. Discover Victorian life ‘upstairs and downstairs’ and find out what is was really like to work in the kitchen and scullery. Decide for yourself if the death of Charles I was plotted in the Conspiracy Room. Dress the family in Tudor costumes. Let children play in the activity packed toy room, and relax in the small, but delightful, walled garden.
Nelson Museum, Great Yarmouth
The Nelson Museum is a Grade II listed Georgian merchant’s house in Great Yarmouth where you can discover more about Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and the times in which he lived. Visitors explore Nelson’s career, from his Norfolk childhood through his famous battles to his tragic, heroic death. Find out about his mesmerising personality, his terrible wounds and his many illnesses - not to mention his scandalous love life. Avoid the rats and beware the cannonfire in Below Decks! Try the hammock, play ship’s games, examine cannons from Nelson’s time or relax in the picnic area of the Maritime Courtyard.
Sainsbury Centre, Norwich
Sir Robert (1906 -2000) and Lady Lisa Sainsbury (1912- ) donated their collection of world art to the University of East Anglia in 1973. In 1974, the then little-known architect, Norman Foster, started to draw up plans for the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, creating a revolution in the history of museum design. and the Sainsbury Centre first opened its doors to visitors in 1978.
The Sainsbury Centre is home to the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection, featuring work spanning 5,000 years of human creativity.
Modern work by artists such as Henry Moore, John Davies, Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon sits alongside art from Africa, the Pacific, the Americas, Asia, Egypt, medieval Europe and the ancient Mediterranean. The Lisa Sainsbury Collection of Modern Pots includes work from Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and Rupert Spira.
As well as temporary exhibitions, other collections on view at the Sainsbury Centre include the University Collection of Abstract and Constructivist Art, Architecture and Design and the Anderson Collection of Art Nouveau comprising jewellery, furniture, glassware and metalwork featuring the fluid organic lines and whiplash curves that characterised European styles in the last years of the 19th century. The latter collection is displayed publicly every three years.
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Few museums in the world contain on a single site collections of such variety and depth as the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Situated in the centre of Cambridge, the beautiful buildings house world-class collections of works of art and antiquities spanning centuries and civilisations.
Highlights include masterpieces of painting from the fourteenth century to the present day, drawings and prints, sculpture, furniture, armour, pottery and glass, oriental art, illuminated manuscripts, coins and medals and antiquities from Egypt, the Ancient Near East, Greece, Rome and Cyprus.
Within its collection of over 500,000 objects, the museum has over 40,000 paintings, drawings and prints in its care. The Department of Paintings, Drawings and Prints houses collections of international importance, including work of European, American and Asian schools, ranging from the thirteenth century to the present day. Highlights include works by Canaletto, Constable, Monet, Titian and Van Dyck.
Shell Museum, Blandford
This one is here simply because we cannot think of anywhere else to put it¡
The Shell Museum in Glandford near Holt, is the oldest purpose-built museum in Norfolk and claims to house the finest seashell collection in the UK. As well as thousands of exquisite seashells, the Museum also contains fossils, birds’ eggs, agate ware, local archaeological finds and many more fascinating items.
And last, but not least, is this rather quirky online museum - the Norfolk Virtual Museum (and there’s no need to check for the opening hours¡).