The 50 Best museums and galleries

Whether you have a spare afternoon in the capital or are working your way through the country's top attractions one exhibition at a time, Sophie Morris presents the definitive bucket list for culture vultures

Sophie Morris
Friday 12 October 2012 21:00 BST

The experts:

Sharon Heal is head of publications at the Museums Association,

Marie Robert is the editor of 'M&H Magazine',

Will Ramsay founded The Affordable Art Fair,

Anthony Spira is the director of the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes,


Leeds Art Gallery

"A great collection of the best 20th-century British Art," says Sharon. "Stop off for a cup of tea in the spectacular Tiled Hall and then explore the sculpture galleries and carry on the investigation at the Henry Moore Institute next door." "A delightful café and best of all, the museum is free!" adds Will.

The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AA (

Manchester Museum

"The museum has taken a quirky approach," says Sharon. "Its natural-history galleries, with traditional stuffed-animal displays, have been given a creative new lease of life. Expect something exciting and engaging from the soon-to-open Ancient Worlds galleries."

The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PL (

International Slavery Museum

"The fascinating thing about the museum is that it tells the history of the transatlantic slave trade through a narrative of resilience, survival and resistance," says Sharon. "And it continues the fight for equality by actively campaigning against racism, discrimination and contemporary slavery."

Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AQ (

Bede's World

"The life and work of the 7th-century monk known as the Venerable Bede may not sound enthralling," says Marie, "but Bede's World museum in Jarrow offers an absorbing insight into the scientist and historian's surprisingly cosmopolitan life. The recreated Anglo-Saxon settlement in the grounds makes his achievements seem even more extraordinary."

Church Bank, Jarrow, Tyne & Wear, NE32 3DY (

Walker Art Gallery

"For a magnificent Victorian collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art going back to the 13th century, cheek by jowl with top 21st-century British art, you can't beat the Walker," says Marie. "One of Liverpool's great free museums, children will love their dedicated gallery and activity trails. Go now to see the biennial John Moores Painting Prize."

William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL (

Beamish – The Living Museum of the North

"This is the biggest and best open-air museum in the country," says Marie. "Beamish preserves ordinary life as it was in 1913, complete with trams, trains and horse-drawn buses, a working farm, a mine, a school and – for those with a strong constitution – a dentist's surgery in the reconstructed high street."

Beamish, County Durham, DH9 0RG (

The National Football Museum

"Just opened in Manchester's fin-shaped Urbis building, this new museum displays what has to be the best collection of footballing memorabilia in the world," says Marie. "It has thought-provoking displays for all knowledge levels, evocative film, art and a brilliant range of interactive features – including a chance to take penalty shots at Wembley's historic goalposts."

Urbis Building, Cathedral Gardens, Manchester, M4 3BG (

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

"The park boasts breathtaking scenery and a beautiful range of sculpture" says Will. "The dialogue between the man-made and the natural will leave everyone impressed."

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield, WF4 4LG (


"A great house, in an even greater landscape, designed by Capability Brown" says Will. "In fact, this is my favourite man-made landscape in the world. The sculpture exhibitions are not to be missed. Within the sumptuous architecture, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire's home is full of goodies, from artefacts of the ancient world to cutting-edge contemporary pieces."

Chatsworth, Bakewell, Derbyshire, DE45 1PP (


"Having recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, this landmark industrial building on the River Tyne has established itself as one of the UK's most significant centres for contemporary art, with a succession of substantial solo exhibitions by UK and international artists," says Anthony.

Gateshead Quays, South Shore Rd, Gateshead, NE8 3BA (

The Henry Moore Institute

"This organisation is part of a foundation, set up by the artist in 1977 to encourage appreciation of the visual arts, especially sculpture," says Anthony. "It hosts year-round exhibitions, conferences and lectures. It's adjacent to Leeds Art Gallery, a museum specialising in 20th-century British Art.

74 The Headrow, Leeds, LS1 3AH (

South-west & London:

American Museum in Britain

"Housed in an 18th-century manor outside Bath, the American Museum in Britain claims to be the only museum of Americana outside the USA," says Marie. "From the typical home of the first settlers to the art of the American Indians, this collection of domestic design and folk art is a delight."

Claverton Manor, Bath, BA2 7BD (01225 460503;

Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery

"The winner of this year's Art Fund prize for museums is worth seeing for its colour scheme alone," says Sharon. "After you get over the shock of the pink walls look out for the art works that throw new light on the collections of archaeology, local history, zoology, geology and world cultures."

Queen Street, Exeter, EX4 3RX (

SS Great Britain

"Stepping into the dry dock to stand next to Isambard Kingdom Brunel's ship is a breathtaking moment," says Sharon. "Its complex story is brought to life through the stories of the passengers and the people involved its working life."

Great Western Dockyard, Bristol, BS1 6TY (

Arnolfini & Spike Island

"Situated at the heart of Bristol's harbourside, Arnolfini is one of Europe's leading centres for the contemporary arts, offering exhibitions, film, performance, dance, music, literature, talks and events," says Anthony. "Nearby Spike Island is a hub for production, presentation and debate around art and design, hosting galleries, art schools, workshops and studios."

16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA/133 Cumberland Rd, BS1 6UX (

Museums and Collections, University College London

"University College London has several museums and galleries that are worth exploring," says Sharon. "The Grant Museum of Zoology, for example, is packed with oddities including a Quagga, a Tasmanian Tiger and lots of specimens preserved in fluid. Visitors can find out more and join the debate by using the iPads that are positioned throughout the display."

University Street, London WC1E 6DE (

William Morris Gallery

"What's great about that William Morris Gallery is that it tells the story of the life and work of Morris with passion and enthusiasm," says Sharon. "It's not just about his wallpaper designs but also his philosophy, politics and campaigning."

Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London E17 4PP (

Sir John Soane Museum

"A treasure trove of art, architecture and weird and wonderful objects" says Will. "This fantastically quirky museum makes for an intriguing afternoon."

13 Lincoln's Inn Fields London WC2A 3BP (

Victoria & Albert Museum

"Not for nothing is the V&A billed as the UK's top museum for art and design," says Marie. "British design and fashion through the ages, the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and so much more – all exquisitely displayed with great family activities, special events and late opening on Fridays."

Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL (

British Museum

"All roads to understanding the history of world civilisation start here," says Marie. "You'll find enough culture to keep your happiness levels topped up for a very long time – and it opens late on Fridays." Even better, if you sign up a child to become a Young Friend of the British Museum, you can buy tickets for its excellent 'sleepovers' nights.

Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG (

DegreeArt Execution Room

Few of us visit a gallery with the intention of buying anything outside of the gift shop, but Degreeart's Execution Room, on East London's hip Vyner Street, is the physical space for a vast online gallery of young and affordable artists, where you can view, browse, buy and seek advice – very readily given – from the directors and artists.

12a Vyner St, London E2 9DG (

London Transport Museum

A favourite among actual children and big kids, as well as transport nerds, the London Transport Museum has undergone a major overhaul in the past decade. As well as documenting the capital's transport history, it considers its future, an ever-evolving debate as the city and its residents grow in number.

Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2E 7BB (

The British Library

Much more than a fabulous building and unrivalled academic resource, the British Library holds regular and well-curated exhibitions based around its rare collections. Kerouac's On the Road manuscript is currently on display; next month comes Mughal India, documenting three centuries of Mughal rule.

96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB (

Scotland & Northern Ireland:

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

"At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum the bard's words are brought to life through objects such as his writing kit and audio clips of his poetry" says Sharon. "The bonus is that the museum is close to the Burns Cottage, where the poet was born, and famous landmarks where his work was set, including Brig O' Doon."

Murdoch's Lone, Alloway, Ayr, KA7 4PQ (

Ulster Museum

"Ulster Museum is home to a broad collection of Irish art including one of the best collections of modern and contemporary Irish art," says Sharon. "There's real depth to the collection with lots on display including a nature zone, a history zone and a gallery dedicated to the Troubles."

Botanic Gardens, Belfast, BT9 5AB (

Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

"Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is popular with locals and tourists alike," says Sharon. "Its whole approach is based on telling stories and it is not afraid of tackling difficult subjects such as sectarianism and domestic violence."

Argyle Street, Glasgow, G3 8AG (

Ormeau Baths Gallery

"A great example of a beautiful building, an interesting exhibition schedule, and a strong education programme coming together" says Will. "One of Belfast's leading contemporary galleries," says Anthony. "Ormeau Baths is a publicly funded gallery with a mix of solo and group shows in all art disciplines."

18a Ormeau Avenue, Belfast BT2 8HS (

Jupiter Artland

"Near Edinburgh airport, and set in the estate of a Jacobean mansion, in my opinion Jupiter Artland is Britain's best contemporary-sculpture park" says Will. "With site-specific works by Kapoor, Gormley, Goldsworthy, Lambie, et al."

Bonnington House Steadings, Wilkieston, Edinburgh, EH27 8BB (

Scottish National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery

"Housed in a splendid neoclassical building below Edinburgh Castle, I consider the National Gallery of Scotland the second-best small museum in the world after the Frick" says Will. "These two venerable Edinburgh institutions, now linked by a brilliant underground space, showcase Scotland's finest art collection and exhibitions," says Marie. "My top tip? The Scottish National Gallery displays its wonderful Turner collection every January."

The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL (

The Burrell Collection

"In the heart of Pollok Country Park, Glasgow, this award-winning building houses a unique collection in a beautiful woodland setting, ranging from Rodin, Degas and Cézanne, to important examples of late medieval art, Chinese and Islamic art, Ancient Civilizations and more" says Will. "The collection is named after its donor, the shipping magnate Sir William Burrell, who was my great, great uncle."

The Burrell Collection, Pollok Country Park, 2060 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow, G43 1AT (

House for an Art Lover

"Explore the inner-sanctum of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, arguably one of Britain's most forward-thinking architects and designers" says Will. "This gem also boasts a fabulous shop and charming al-fresco dining."

House for an Art Lover, Bellahouston Park,10 Dumbreck Road, Glasgow, G41 5BW (

Tower Museum

"Located within the historic walls of Londonderry – UK City of Culture for 2013 – the Tower Museum is not only a very good local history museum," says Marie, "it puts the recent troubles into historical perspective, using interactive and audiovisual displays and tackling sensitive issues head-on."

Union Hall Place, Derry, BT48 6LU (

Fruitmarket Gallery

"Conveniently situated adjacent to Edinburgh's Waverley Rail Station, the Fruitmarket Gallery opened in 1974 to present 'world class, thought-provoking and challenging art that is welcoming, engaging, informative and always free,'" says Anthony.

45 Market Street, Edinburgh EH1 1DF (

Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow

"CCA provides a platform for exciting and inspiring cutting-edge contemporary visual art, performance, film, music, spoken word and other events," says Anthony. "It is fast developing a reputation for world-class improvised, experimental and electronic music."

350 Sauchiehall Street, City Centre, G2 3JD (


Big Pit National Coal Museum

"The highlight is the underground tour which takes place 300ft below the surface with a former miner as your guide," says Sharon. "After that the Pithead Baths exhibition is an evocative location to tell the story of coal mining in Wales."

Blaenafon, Torfaen, NP4 9XP (

Oriel Mostyn Gallery

The pretty seaside town of Llandudno is home to Wales' leading contemporary art gallery. "Founded in 1901 and renovated in 2010, Mostyn does not have a collection but displays a wide range of changing exhibitions of contemporary art, including frequent exhibitions of African and Latin America artists," says Anthony.

12 Vaughan St, Llandudno, LL30 1AB (

National Museum Cardiff

Whatever your interests, you'll find something here. There is national history, archaeology and geology collections, and the new National Museum of Art, housed in the same building in Cardiff's grand civic centre. Current exhibitions include a collection of JMW Turner paintings and 'Going Modern: The Struggle for Abstract Art in Wales'.

Cathays Park, Cardiff, CF10 3NP (

National Slate Museum

The streets and the landscapes of North Wales are characterised by its abundance of slate, and the Llanberis Slate Museum tells the history and politics of this important resource. The museum is located in the 19th-century workshops of the Dinorwig Quarry, under Elidir Mountain by Snowdon, which closed in 1969. Also here is the pretty Llanberis Lake Railway.

Llanberis, Gwynedd, LL55 4TY (

Dylan Thomas Centre

Wales' most famous poet is celebrated in Swansea's Maritime Quarter. The centre is home to a permanent exhibtion on Thomas' life and work, 'Dylan Thomas: Man and Myth', as well as the location for many literary events and the annual Dylan Thomas Festival in October and November.

1 Somerset Place, Swansea, SA1 1RR (

Bodelwyddan Castle

Home to the National Portrait Gallery in Wales, this is a mid-19th-century castle sitting in 260 acres of Denbighshire parkland. It houses a large number of portraits from the National Portrait Gallery alongside furniture collections from the V&A and sculpture from the Royal Academy of arts.

Bodelwyddan, Rhyl, Denbighshire, LL18 5YA (

South-east & Midlands:

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

"Visit to see the selection of the bling from the Staffordshire Hoard (the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon jewelry ever found) that is on display here," says Sharon. "It also has the largest public pre-Raphaelite collection in the world and a new Birmingham history galleries."

Chamberlain Square, Birmingham, B3 3DH (

Pitt Rivers Museum

"Wonder at primitive artefacts collected from all over the world in this treasure chest of a museum," says Marie. "Hidden within another museum, the Pitt Rivers' old-style display cases are jam-packed with curiosities and beautiful objects from the University of Oxford's collection of ethnography and world archaeology."

Entrance through the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW (

Nottingham Galleries of Justice Museum

"For spine-chilling artefacts and thought-provoking displays relating to crime and punishment, go to the Galleries of Justice inside Nottingham's former prison," says Marie. "Grim and gruesome tales are brought to life by actors as they show you the ancient cells below the old courthouse."

The Lace Market, High Pavement, Nottingham, NG1 1HN (

Focal Point Gallery

"Currently located on the second floor of Southend Central Library but imminently moving to a new site, this organisation focuses on 'the experimental and visionary use of lens-based media' and enterprising offsite projects in and around Southend and the Thames Gateway," says Anthony.

Southend Central Library, Victoria Avenue, Southend-on-Sea, SS2 6EX (

Wysing Arts Centre

"Wysing Arts Centre is a working campus providing alternative environments and structures for artistic production, learning and knowledge exchange," says Anthony. "The large rural site near Cambridge includes artists' studios, education and new media facilities, a gallery and project spaces, a 17th century farmhouse and outdoor structures."

Fox Road, Cambridge, CB23 2TX (

The De La Warr Pavilion

Considered by some as the first major Modernist public building in Britain, the seafront De La Warr Pavilion was constructed in 1935 and designed by the architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. In 2005, after an extensive programme of restoration, the De La Warr Pavilion opened as a contemporary art centre, encompassing one of the largest galleries on the south coast of England.

Marina, Bexhill on Sea, East Sussex TN40 1DP (

Turner Contemporary

"A fantastically vibrant institution that promotes art for one and all" says Will. "The thought-provoking exhibitions are curated in a striking museum building that is fast becoming Kent's cultural hub."

Rendezvous, Margate, Kent, CT9 1HG (


"Charleston was the home and country meeting place for the writers, painters and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury group" says Will. "An explosion of colour coupled with a spectacular English country garden – nothing but inspirational."

Charleston, Firle, Lewes, East Sussex, BN8 6LL (

Nottingham Contemporary

"Designed by award-winning architects Caruso St John and inspired by the area's history of lace manufacture, the cladding is embossed with a traditional Nottingham lace pattern," says Anthony. "The gallery spaces are among the largest in the UK and the programme is one of the strongest, specialising in striking juxtapositions of historical and contemporary art."

Weekday Cross, Nottingham, Notts, NG2 2GB (

Jerwood Gallery

This is the home to the Jerwood Collection of 20th-and 21st- century art, and a cultural draw for the charming seaside town of Hastings in East Sussex. The current temporary exhibition is of Gillian Ayres' early paintings from the late 1950s.

Rock-a-Nore Rd, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 3DW (

Best for... gritty realism

Kelvingrove: The art gallery and museum are beautiful, but that goes hand-in-hand with explanations of the more challenging aspects of our history

Best for... the imagination

Beamish: For a step back in time that the whole family will find fascinating, this recreation of life in County Durham 100 years ago is hard to beat.

Best for... industrial history

National Coal Museum: Not for those suffering from claustrophobia, for everyone else, the underground tour of this 'Big Pit' is an astounding sight

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