Three Museums in Dorchester

Tuesday 30 May 2017

Dorchester is a small town but is overflowing with museums. Sometimes these are seen as “rainy day” backups, but we think these three, in particular, are must-see attractions even on a fine Summer’s day.

Dorset County Museum

Dorset County Museum

This museum should be on the to-do list of every Dorchester visitor who has even a smidgen of interest in history. There are a wide-range of exhibits, from a dinosaur skull to a re-creation of Thomas Hardy’s study, and just about everything in between. The museum owns so much stuff that there is only space to display the really best artefacts, which makes for a concise, fast-paced museum without endless rows and rows of cases to wade through. There is, however, enough space to touch on the Jurassic Coast, the Neolithic and Iron Age period, the Romans, Judge Jeffries, local agriculture and Dorset’s rich literary heritage, particularly Thomas Hardy and William Barnes. The building is almost a museum in itself, especially the almost cathedral-like Victorian Hall, one of the few places where you can actually walk on Roman mosaics relaid into the floor.

The museum is slightly worn around the edges, but this is about to change. As if the museum wasn’t good enough already – and it absolutely is – it’s about to be imaginatively extended and revamped with a £10m lottery grant to turn it into a state of the art County museum. And before that, the museum will be centre stage in Spring 2018, when Dippy the Diplodocus, of National History Museum fame, will fill (literally!) the Victorian Hall at the start of his UK tour in February-May 2018.

The Keep

The Keep

This is a military museum following the history of the Dorset & Devon Regiments. That sounds pretty obscure, so unless you had an ancestor in the regiments it’s not worth visiting, right? Very wrong. This museum effectively tells the story of British military history through the eyes of specific local regiments. This is history annotated with the names of ordinary people and this intimacy, together with very well presented, accessible exhibits, really brings the story alive. It makes it so much more human – the victories seem more triumphant but the disasters, especially, become so much more poignant. The balance between the faux glamour of war and the very real human suffering is well maintained. It’s an exciting story, but told very sensitively.

The Keep also has a little extra bonus. The museum is housed in the extravagant gateway to the former County Barracks, and the rooftop can be accessed for some amazing and unique views over the Dorchester skyline. On a fine day, this view seems almost worth the admission money alone, but you shouldn’t miss the four floors of exhibits either. 

Max Gate

Max Gate

This is not technically a museum, but it shares many of the same attributes and, more importantly, is a lovely place to visit for anyone with even a slight interest in Thomas Hardy or Victorian social history.

Max Gate was the home of Hardy for his last forty years. He trained as an architect before beginning to write, and designed the house himself including the later extensions. The house was lived in privately for many years after his death, and has only been fully open to visitors relatively recently. As a consequence, there is little or no authentic Hardy paraphernalia here, but the NT is working towards decorating and furnishing the home in a similar style to when the author was in residence. This is giving the house what feels like an authentic middle class Victorian atmosphere, although at this stage it is still a work in progress, with the Trust continuing to restore it as time and funding allows.

The whole house, being both designed and lived in for many years by Hardy, feels very much like “his” house. This home was itself part of his life’s work alongside his novels and poems, and now celebrates both his architectural and writing skills. It is not too difficult to imagine the man himself lurking around every corner, and this must come to life still more on those occasions when the New Hardy Players perform here.

Coming Soon….

These are three personal highlights, but there are many other attractions and ancient monuments to entertain visitors to Dorchester with an eye for history. Early 2018 will also see the opening of the completely refurbished Shire Hall, home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs courtroom and cells. This is likely to become another must-see historical attraction in the county town!

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