Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

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Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

Coordinates: 51°27′22″N 2°36′19″W / 51.4561°N 2.6053°W / 51.4561; -2.6053

The Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery is a large museum and art gallery in Bristol, England. It is run by the city council with no entrance fee. It holds designated museum status, granted by the national government to protect outstanding museums. It is situated in Clifton, about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) from the city centre.

The museum includes sections on natural history, local, national and international archaeology, and local industry. The art gallery contains works from all periods, including many by internationally famous artists, as well a collection of modern paintings of Bristol.

In the summer of 2009 the museum hosted an exhibition by Banksy, featuring more than 70 works of art, including animatronics and installations; it is his largest exhibition yet. It was developed in secrecy and with no advance publicity, but soon gained worldwide notoriety.

The building is of Edwardian Baroque architecture and has been designated by English Heritage as a grade II* listed building.


The Museum and Art Gallery's origins lie in the foundation, in 1823, of the Bristol Institution for the Advancement of Science and Art, sharing brand-new premises at the bottom of Park Street (a 100 yards (91 m) downhill from the current site) with the slightly older Bristol Literary and Philosophical Society. The neoclassical building was designed by Sir Charles Robert Cockerell (1788–1863), who was later to complete the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and build St. George’s Hall, Liverpool, and was later used as the Freemasons Hall.

In April 1871 the Bristol Institution merged with the Bristol Library Society and on 1 April 1872 a new combined museum and library building in Venetian Gothic style was opened at the top of Park Street. The lease on the former Bishop’s College building next door, which had been the Library Society's home since 1855, passed to the local army reserve unit, whose drill hall lay behind it; it became the Victoria (later Salisbury) Club and a restaurant. The old Institution building was sold to the Freemasons. Although the new building was extended in 1877, by the 1890s the Museum and Library Association was struggling financially, and even unable to pay its curator, Edward Wilson (1848—1898). Negotiations with the city government culminated in the transfer of the whole organization and premises to Bristol city government on 31 May 1894. Wilson remained Curator until his death – only this time he was actually paid!

However in June 1899 the site of the Salisbury Club was offered for sale to the city, the tobacco baron, Sir William Henry Wills (1830—1911, later Lord Winterstoke) offering £10,000 to help buy the site and build a new City Art Gallery on it. Designed by Sir Frederick Wills in an Edwardian Baroque style work on the new building started in 1901, and opened in February 1905. It was built in a rectangular open plan in 2 sections each consisting of a large hall with barrel-vaulted glazed roofs, separated by a double staircase. It incorporated a Museum of Antiquities, as it had been decided during the planning stage that Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities should be grouped with art in the new structure, rather than remaining with the natural history collections that remained in the old building. Interestingly, stone tools continued to reside with the geology collections within natural history. Yet more space became available to museum displays when Bristol Central Library moved down the hill to College Green in 1906. The vacant rooms were reconstructed as invertebrate and biology galleries.

In 1913, the army reserve's drill hall, which now lay between the rear of the Art Gallery and the rapidly expanding University of Bristol, was purchased by the two institutions, three-fifths of the complex falling to the Museum and Art Gallery, the rest to the University. Unfortunately, the outbreak of war in 1914 put paid to any plans for new building; indeed, the Upper Museum Room (geology) was cleared in 1916 to became a ‘Soldiers Room’ to entertain convalescents and the Egyptian Room ‘served for reading and writing and for the delivery of special demonstrations. However, after being used for storage for over a decade, it proved possible to demolish the Drill Hall to permit a rearward extension of the Art Gallery. This was funded by Sir George Alfred Wills (1854-1928, a cousin of Lord Winterstoke) and completed in 1930.

The 1872/1877 Museum building was gutted by fire following a bomb hit on the night of 24/25 November 1940, during the Bristol Blitz, some 17,000 of the natural history specimens being lost. The 1930 extension of the Art Gallery was also hit, but luckily escaped the conflagration, although suffering badly from blast damage. Nevertheless, the Art Gallery partially reopened in February 1941, now also housing some of the Museum's surviving material on a ‘temporary’ basis. Although now housed in the same building, from April 1945, the Museum and Art Gallery were formally split into separate institutions with the lower floor becoming the Museum and the upper floors the Art Gallery. As part of this restructuring, the archaeology and anthropology collections were transferred from the Art Gallery to the Museum.

In February 1947, the remains of the old Museum building (with the exception of the undamaged lecture theatre) were sold to Bristol University: it was then rebuilt as its dining rooms, later becoming Brown's Restaurant. The sale of the building in 1947 reflected the intention that new premises would soon be provided for the Museum and the Art Gallery; planning began in 1951, but then dragged on for the next twenty years, during which time the old buildings received minimal attention, other than the insertion of mezzanines to gain additional space.

Meanwhile, various proposals had been made for new museum buildings in Castle Park, in the very centre of Bristol, overlooking the river Avon. However, spiraling costs and funding difficulties meant that in 1971 the plans were abandoned and a smaller amount of money was put into upgrading the existing building. Wholesale refurbishment was required, including rewiring, rearranging offices, creating laboratories and dividing up and furnishing the basement to provide proper storage for the reserve collections.

In the summer of 2009 the museum hosted an exhibition by Banksy, featuring more than 70 works of art, including animatronics and installations; it is his largest exhibition yet. It was developed in secrecy and with no advance publicity.


Today, the top floor art galleries include a collection of Chinese Glass and the "Schiller collection" of Eastern Art donated by Max Schiler, the Recorder of Bristol from 1935 to 1946 and collected by his older brother Ferdinand N Schiler. It contains a range of Chinese ceramics wares spanning different dynastic periods. Particularly fine pieces include a number of white, light blue and green-glazed (Ying Qing and Qingbai) wares from the Tang (AD 618-960) and Song (AD 960-1279) dynasties. It also holds a collection of Bristol blue glass.

The Egyptology gallery contains mummies besides other items and a wall decoration made over 3,000 years ago - the Assyrian Reliefs, which were transferred from the Royal West of England Academy. It also has a significant collection of Egyptian antiquities, a considerable number derived from the excavations of the Egypt Exploration Society and British School of Archaeology in Egypt. A completely rebuilt Egyptian gallery opened in 2007.

A natural history gallery contains examples of aquatic habitats in the south west of England and an interactive map of local wildlife sites and a freshwater aquarium containing fish typical of the region.

The museum also holds many of the prehistoric and Roman artifacts recovered before the flooding of Chew Valley Lake, and other local archaeological finds such as those from Pagans Hill Roman Temple and the Orpheus Mosaic from Newton St Loe.

Friends of Bristol Art Gallery

The society has supported the gallery since 1947, acquiring over 300 works of art for the gallery.

Future development

In November 2007 Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery in partnership with the Arnolfini was one of five successful institutions to win an additional £1 million from the Art Fund. This will be used to reflect the city's history as a port and "a city of international transaction", to purchase work by artists from China, Africa and the Middle East, such as Meschac Gaba and Romuald Hazoumé, from Benin, Hu Xiaoyuan, Xu Zhen and Lu Chunsheng from China, Sherif El Azma from Egypt, Sigalit Landau from Israel, and Huit Facettes of Senegal. The theme of the Bristol partnership will be ‘Glass Walls: Reflections and Interactions’.

Other museums

Other museums administered by Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery are Blaise Castle House, the Red Lodge, the Georgian House and Kings Weston Roman Villa. The Bristol Industrial Museum, which closed in 2006, and is due to reopen in 2011 as the Museum of Bristol.


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