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Dorset County Museum

Founded: 1845      Governance: Independent Trust        Scope: Local history, art, paleontology    Visited: Autumn 2017

The clichéd image of the great museum is the Classical portico (and I even make use of it here). The mighty British Museum, and so many others around the UK and the world, looks like that. But there is a different vision, not so focused on Culture and Art, but on history and a sense of place. The County Museum in Dorchester is on that end of the spectrum: its facade, facing onto the glorious High West Street, is Tudor-Gothic, and its great wooden door could grace a minster church, or the Guildhall of a medieval borough. And so this was the vision of the Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society in the 1840s, the creation of an institution which would rescue and celebrate the history of the county from the economic and social change sweeping across the rural landscape. This building dates to the 1880s, after the Museum had had a number of temporary homes.

The County Museum is certainly venerable, and its collections are remarkable. You realise with a start that you're walking over part of them, in the form of Roman mosaics set into the floor of the Victorian Hall. The Hall is the central set-piece of the whole Museum, a sort of glass-and-iron take on the great Dinosaur Hall of the Natural History Museum on a smaller scale. It has something of the Nonconformist chapel about it. The major problem the Museum faces is the piecemeal muddlement of the galleries which follow no clear scheme and could do with a bit of a shake-out. To be fair, the Museum is well aware of this and is in the early stages of a huge reordering which will take years to achieve (the archaeology gallery is the first fruit of this). As a result, the character of beautiful Dorset emerges rather shyly from the displays; but the makings of something really rather wonderful are there. 

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Dorset County MuseumDorset County Museum
Dorset County MuseumDorset County Museum
Dorset County Museum


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