When Explore Reading mentioned to friends that we were compiling a list of the best museums in Reading, the reply was almost unanimous: ‘Museums, plural? Good luck with that!’
To which our response is this list of six excellent museums where you can enjoy a fun day out and explore history and culture in Reading. Discover museums dedicated to Reading’s waterways, Greek archaeology, our rural past and, unusually, our hospital with Explore Reading’s guide to the best museums in Reading.
Written by Claire Slobodian, Sophie Smith and Tom Lee
The Museum of English Rural Life
Reopened in 2016 after a £3.3 million renovation, The MERL is now a seriously impressive and versatile museum. The focus here is in the title: rural life. There’s a great mix of detail for adults and hands-on fun for kids with exhibits taking in animals, agriculture and country life across England.
The ground floor starts with a look at the farming year, featuring vintage machinery, details of seasonal tasks and a model sheep in a knitted jumper (cute, but a bit wrong). As you move through there’s information about medicine of the times, how the animals were looked after and the lives of the people who worked on the land. It’s detailed, but not dry, and you really get a sense of what made rural life tick.
We also like the model farmhouse, flanked by a beautiful glass wall map of Reading. Here you take in the tasks of country home life, soundtracked by ‘The Archers’ on a glorious old wooden wireless. Upstairs you can browse racks brimming with archive pieces and the small but wonderfully nostalgic gallery devoted to Ladybird books throughout the years.
Given its recent renovation, it’s no surprise that The MERL is also the most digitally advanced of all the museums on this list. There’s frequent video and audio as well as interactive touch screens dotted about with fun learning tools for kids (they work for big kids too – one of us may have had to be encouraged to move on from the sheep farming game).
Make sure to finish up your visit with a sit down in the beautiful garden. Tucked back from the main road, it’s wonderfully peaceful and full of charming community growing spaces to admire.
The Museum of English Rural Life
6 Redlands Road, RG1 5EX | 0118 378 8660 | 9am-5pm Tuesday-Friday, 10am-4pm Saturday-Sunday | Free | Read more
With three floors and 11 galleries dedicated to the history of our town, Reading Museum is still the grand dame of this list.
The top floor features exhibits on Natural History, Roman life (complete with a model Silchester village and togas for dressing up), and a beautiful gallery of vintage Huntley & Palmers biscuit tins. On the ground floor you can discover Reading’s more recent industrial heritage. This section comes alive thanks to lovely donations from local icons, such as Elm Park stadium seats, a Sutton’s lawnmower and an original pneumatic cash terminal from Jackson’s.
The highlight is in the middle though: the Victorian-era replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. A 70-metre-long embroidery, it depicts the lead up to the 1066 Battle of Hastings, complete with war, invasion and intrigue. Visit on a Saturday between 2.15 – 3pm to join a free guided tour of the tapestry. It’s worth it to pick up on historical insights, symbols and all the Anglo-Saxon gossip (Edward the Confessor was ‘a horrible, small-minded man’, apparently).
The museum is now showing its age slightly and technology doesn’t appear to have advanced much since the ‘90s, but there are some gems. We like the audio histories of Reading life or the ‘Reading: The Town Between Two Rivers’ documentary, narrated by local boy done good, Sir Kenneth Branagh.
Overall, Reading Museum is full of insights into our town’s history. There’s lots of nostalgia for long-time residents and enough fun to keep kids entertained for a few hours. They have also recently been awarded funding from Arts Council England, so we look forward to an even more refreshed and digital Reading Museum in the next couple of years.
Blagrave Street, RG1 1QH | 0118 937 3400 | Free | 10am – 4pm Tuesday to Saturday | Read more
Royal Berkshire Medical Museum
Small in size, but crammed with artifacts, this little-known museum packs a surprising punch. It’s only open two Sundays a month, and on arrival you may think that the tiny room is one for a quick dash around and out. But you’d be wrong.
Starting with early apothecary jars, the museum is filled with artifacts from medical history. Spot original hip replacements, torturous-looking dental kits and a full-size iron lung. There’s even a jar wriggling with live leeches.
It’s not all about tools and equipment though. The back wall has a fascinating display of Reading’s military cottage hospitals during WW1 and there are touching stories of Reading’s unsung medical heroes.
What really lifts the Medical Museum to gem status is the enthusiastic volunteer team who tour you around the exhibits. Most of the guides have worked in the medical environment and are fountains of knowledge, happy to share expertise and the occasional gory story from their back catalogue. Their passion for medicine makes the whole visit a delight.
The Royal Berkshire Medical Museum is a great way to reflect on how fortunate we are to have our current medical practices, as well as delight in the enthusiasm of the volunteer team.
Given its proximity to The MERL, it’s also convenient to visit both on the same Sunday, if you’re after a best museum double whammy.
The Medical Museum
Royal Berkshire Hospital, North Wing, London Road, RG1 5AN | 0118 954 9371 | 2-4.30pm first and third Sundays of the month | Free, or by donation | Read more
The Riverside Museum
Sat on the site of the former Blake’s Lock Museum, The Riverside Museum is now confined to two small industrial buildings alongside Bel and the Dragon Restaurant.
Screen House hosts a one-room exhibition on the importance of the Thames and the Kennet to the early development of Reading. Shelves of varied and interesting apparatus, including eel-fishing spears and Regatta rowing equipment, spotlight work, life and play on the rivers. Another section focuses on water-trade for three of Reading’s big ‘B’ industries (beer, biscuits and bricks).
Here you can also spot the magnificent Reading-built gypsy caravan, always a highlight at Blake’s Lock Museum. It’s now sadly behind a glass window, but is still a colourful glimpse into Romany life. Also view snapshots of Reading’s notable ‘River People’, including ‘Wind in the Willows’ author Kenneth Grahame and the Mayor of Reading in 1720, Robert Blake, after whom the lock was named.
The neighbouring Turbine House is more sparse, with only the preserved machinery to view. But it’s also home to seasonal art shows and is a good viewpoint to gaze out across the lock. Signposts help you spot the Victorian-era caretakers’ cottages, the gas tower and the 1947 flood marker, a memory of the highest level the Kennet ever reached.
Despite its diminished size, The Riverside Museum still manages to share a lot of affection for Reading’s waterways. There’s limited interaction for children, but the industrial buildings are fun (and safe) to explore, and you’ll still pick up lots of waterway knowledge.
The Riverside Museum at Blake’s Lock
Kenavon Drive, RG1 3DH | 0118 939 9800 | Open 10am-6pm daily | Free | Read more
The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology
Described as having ‘one of the most important collections of Greek ceramics in Britain’, The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology is named after Professor Ure, the first Professor of Classics at Reading University. Pottery makes up the majority of its 2000-plus objects, alongside a smattering of tools, musical instruments and one mummified cat’s head.
Rather inventively, the curators have used the diverse range of kraters and amphorae jars to paint a broad picture of Grecian life, showing how millennia-old vases can tell us about everything from religion and war to household life and education. Each case in the one-room museum is dedicated to a particular theme, including the ‘Game of Thrones’-sounding Storm of Spears and ‘The Body Beautiful’.
Displays are accompanied by laminated sheets with colourful context. The Ancient Greek Diet, for example, features a recipe for a traditional warrior’s energy bar that you can make at home.
Designed with child-friendly attributes despite the solemn surroundings, the museum has an activity trail for little ones that aims to introduce them to some of the more notable examples of Greek pottery in residence.
The Ure Museum is intriguing, but quite small, so we recommend combining it with the Cole Museum of Zoology (below), to make the most of your trip to the university.
The Ure Museum
Department Of Classics, University Of Reading, RG6 6AA | 0118 378 6990 | 9am – 4.30pm Monday – Friday | Free | Read more
The Cole Museum of Zoology
Also located at Reading University, The Cole Museum of Zoology is even keener to appeal to youngsters, boasting its own trail, colouring pencils and paper, and a model pig with detachable internal organs.
Found inside the Animal and Microbial Sciences Building, it’s a little larger than the Ure Museum, a touch more technologically advanced and has laminated guides in English, Italian, French and Mandarin.
As you enter, you are immediately confronted by the dramatic skeletons of an Indian elephant, a false killer whale (a type of dolphin) and two giant spider crabs. The latter are the largest type of arthropod alive today – and that’s just one of the many random facts waiting to be discovered. For example, did you know that giant squid are a favourite snack of sperm whales, or that a third of all insect species are beetles? How about the fact that Queen Elizabeth I paid £10,000, equivalent to more than £4 million today, for one narwhal tusk? (You can view the one at the Cole Museum for free!)
Some of the exhibits, while fascinating, can be slightly sinister. There’s an enormous Goliath bird-eating spider and a copepod parasite embedded in the skin of a whale. Partially dissected creatures float in glass jars beside a stuffed lion cub and a golden mole.
You will leave, however, feeling thoroughly educated and brimming with zoological trivia to show off at the pub.
The Cole Museum of Zoology
Animal and Microbial Sciences Building, University Of Reading, RG6 6AA | 0118 378 7083 | 9.30 – 4.30pm Monday – Friday | Free | Read more