From a giant squid to a lock of poet Robert Burns’ hair, the UK’s museums boast an eclectic array of weird and wonderful items available to view in their permanent collections year-round – in normal times.
With museums across the UK preparing to reopen this spring, Museums Journal has rounded up the most iconic objects in museums’ permanent collections across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as we go #BackToMuseums.
As long as data allows, museums in mainland Scotland will be permitted to reopen from 26 April and those in England will follow on 17 May. More information is expected soon on when Wales and Northern Ireland can reopen (and, of course, there are a few lucky corners of the British Isles where museums are already welcoming visitors back).
With your Museums Association membership, you get free or discounted entry to more than 900 museums, galleries and heritage sites across the UK, including many of the exhibitions mentioned here.
Lewis chess pieces at the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Opening: 26 April 2021
These medieval chess pieces were found buried in a beach in Lewis, an island off the west coast of Scotland, in 1831. The elaborate figurines are thought to have been created in Norway for the gentry in the late 12th or early 13th century, and are made out of walrus ivory (transported from Greenland to Norway) and sperm whale tooth. Around the time the hoard of chess pieces was buried, Lewis belonged to the kingdom of Norway.
The chess pieces also inspired the wizard’s chess set in the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. They can be viewed in the Kingdom of the Scots display on the first floor of the National Museum of Scotland.
Sutton Hoo helmet at the British Museum, London
Opening: As soon as restrictions are lifted
Fans of Netflix blockbuster The Dig will be pleased to know they can view the Anglo-Saxon collection for free in the British Museum’s permanent collection. Although it wasn’t featured in the film, the Sutton Hoo helmet is the most iconic item from the excavation site.
Weighing five pounds, the helmet is made out of iron, bronze, tin, gold and silver and was likely produced in the 6th and 7th centuries, either in Sweden or Britain, for leaders going to battle.
Considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain, the Sutton Hoo collection, which had been preserved for over 1,500 years, was discovered in 1939 across 20 burial mounds in Suffolk. Edith Pretty, the landowner where the mounds were uncovered, then donated the items to the British Museum.
Celebrate going #BackToMuseums
The ‘Magna Carta of football’ at the National Football Museum, Manchester
Opening: 27 May 2021
This handwritten “Laws of the Game” manuscript was produced in 1863 and details some of the first-ever laws of football.
Ebenezer Cobb Morley, the first secretary of the Football Association, wrote the 13 original rules of football found in its pages, detailing guidelines such as the number of players in a team, the size of the ball and field, and the offside rule.
It is considered to be the book that led to football’s global popularity. Cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg included the book in Twelve Books that Changed the World, published in 2006.
The National Football Museum acquired what is referred to as “the Magna Carta of football” on 23 March 2021, marking 20 years since the Manchester museum first opened.
A lock of Burns’ hair at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, South Ayrshire
Opening: 30 April 2021
Scotland’s National Poet, Robert Burns (1759-96), has a 3cm lock of his hair on display at the house where he lived, which is now the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, in Alloway on the west coast of Scotland.
This lock of hair is understood to have been acquired by Burns’ widow Jean Armour Burns, who married the poet in 1788, after the death of her husband at only 37 years old.
The last lunch menu at the Titanic, Belfast
Opening: 3 June 2021
For first-class passengers on board the Titanic, this would have been the last lunch they ate on the ship before tragically striking an iceberg on 14 April 1912. The rare artefact gives an insight into the luxury dining for some passengers, including dishes such as Norwegian anchovies and roast beef.
The luncheon menu belonged to passenger Ruth Dodge, who survived the disaster via an inflatable lifeboat. On the back of the menu, a handwritten note from a ship steward who knew the family reads: “With compliments & best wishes from Frederic Dent Ray, 56 Palmer Park, Reading, Berks.”
Rupert Hunt, who bought the menu for £58,000 from the Dodge family, has loaned the menu to the Titanic Belfast and it is currently on display in Gallery 5 – The Maiden Voyage.
Waterlilies by Claude Monet at the National Museum Cardiff
Opening: No fixed date yet
One of Monet’s most famous paintings can be found in Cardiff. While living in Giverny, France, Monet became increasingly fascinated by the pond and footbridge in his garden. Between 1903 and 1908 he painted three iterations of the waterlilies.
According to Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, the painting “is the earliest and most descriptive of the three Waterlilies purchased by Gwendoline Davies [a Welsh collector of impressionist art] at Paris in 1913.” Gwendoline and her sister Margaret went on to gift their family’s 260-strong artwork collection to the museum.
Guy Fawkes’ lantern at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Opening: When government guidance allows
Guy Fawkes is said to have been carrying this iron lantern when he was arrested in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament on the night of 4 November 1605, during his failed attempt to blow up the building and kill King James I, a Protestant.
The lantern was given to the University of Oxford by Robert Heywood in 1641. Heywood’s brother, Peter, was one of two people who searched the cellars of parliament that fateful night and is believed to have taken the lantern from Guy Fawkes during the initial struggle that prevented Fawkes from detonating the gunpowder. It is available to view in Gallery 2 of the Ashmolean’s lower ground floor.
Giant squid at the Natural History Museum, London
Opening: 17 May 2021
Historically thought of as a mythical creature, this rare 8.62-metre-long giant squid was accidentally caught by a deep-sea fishing trawler off the coast of the Falkland Islands in 2004.
Until that point, only fragments of the elusive animal had been found washed up on beaches or in the bellies of sperm whales. Archie, the museum’s nearly complete specimen, can be found in the space’s Darwin Centre, accessible via their £15 behind-the-scenes Spirit Tour.
Archie was so long that the museum’s preservation team struggled to find a tank big enough to house the cephalopod. In the end, they commissioned the same people who constructed tanks for artist Damien Hirst’s exhibitions to make him an appropriately-sized home.
If you’re keen to grab your diary and start planning your #BackToMuseums trips to see your favourite museum objects, don’t forget that with MA membership you can get free or discounted entry to over 900 museums across the UK.