If you're looking for a small local history museum, perfectly set up to bring in the locals, and inform the casual visitor, by golly Banbury Museum seems to be on form.
I took a short walk along the Oxford canal from Banbury train station, and just as I was starting to mentally grumble at the modern shopping centre unceremoniously dumped beside the canal, I found the museum café entrance. At this point I gave my grumble a quick realign, as there seems to have been a lot of thought put into making the museum an easily reached and enticing prospect for passers by, including the museum gift shop actually being inside the shopping centre. The building being packed with excited families, ambling couples, brunch munching OAPs and tea sipping dog walkers, the intentions seem to work.
Entering by the canal-side café, I wound my way upstairs and found a bridge over the canal which links the main building to the shopping centre gift shop. With floor to ceiling windows and a view over Tooley’s historic boatyard, the bridge area is used to great effect explaining the history of the Oxford canal. There are plenty of hands on activities, often with the real world item visible from the bridge's windows, making the activities perfectly placed to understand their full function
Upstairs is the Banbury Gallery, with a cabinet at the bottom of the stairs designed to pique interest and pull visitors in. Moving from the very modern and daylight filled areas of the building, to the darker museum takes a minute to adjust, but instantly it's clear that this one room packs a lot in, and wants to do Banbury proud.
Steered off to the left after an introduction, the displays are built around a timeline (a genuine line you follow around the room’s wall) There's plenty of debate about the use of timelines in museums, but here it forms a simple and accessible way to understand the ups and downs of Banbury. To help define these different ups and downs of local history, the timeline is divided with evocative headers, and the items displayed are carefully related to that theme, such as Plush and Prosperity (a loom, cloth samples) moving to Poverty and Protest, (truncheons and man traps). The hierarchy of information is well delivered, with clear colours and different sizes of text allowing you to either skim read, delve a bit deeper, or read each individual label.
The contents are by and large the stock in trade of local history museums. Small archaeological finds, donated cherished family possessions, civic items, goods from local industry and items saved when the industry died. The timeline and dividing headers genuinely turn the displays from something interchangeable with many other local history museums to something which feels uniquely Banbury. They have their own story to tell, both locally and in the context of national events, and use the collection to illustrate it appropriately.
Also at the museum is a ticketed exhibition, which at the time of my visit was hosting a pop art exhibition from the V&A. I was not expecting that! Due to a lack of time I didn't visit, but having a slice of the V&A on your doorstep is something I hope many visitors do take advantage of. Opposite the exhibition entrance were children's art activities related to pop art. As these are easily accessible without going into the exhibition, and just next to the very hands on Oxford canal area, it's a good way to engage children with the idea and perhaps then channel that into visiting the exhibition itself.
Throughout Banbury museum the interpretation is short enough to inform, without being cursory, and it's a modern and bright building which feels welcoming and without being stark. Absolutely worth an hour or more of your time. Perhaps a few hours, given that the café unexpectedly does a great range of Greek food, and you an bask in the canal-side sun with a glass of wine.
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