The City Museum, found at the heart of our very own Winchester, displays the city through the ages through the key archaeological and social findings from the local area, from a Roman skeleton complete with coffin nails, to a medieval toilet seat. As a volunteer at the museum, I might be quite biased, but only because I’ve loved the museum for years as an interesting, entertaining and inspiring collection.
The three galleries inside the museum depict the city at the height of the key periods in its development from the capital city of England to the cathedral city it remains. The Roman gallery on the top floor, entitled Venta Belgarum after the city’s name of the period, depicts the city through the Roman finds from the area, the most notable being the intact mosaic found in Sparsholt which dominates the gallery. An interactive light-up display depicts the developing landscape of the city due to the Roman alterations to the River Itchen, which used to flow straight down what is now known as Winchester High Street.
The key thing to remember as you walk through the galleries is that even if you don’t know the city too well, most of the displays are transferable and could well represent the circumstances and living standards in other areas of the country, but it’s also great to see the beautifully historic city around us adapting to social and economic change.
Keep an eye out for Gunni, the Anglo-Saxon whose burial can be found in the Wintanceaster gallery alongside the medieval Moot horn, which is said to have been heard from as far away as St Catherine’s Hill when it was blown at the Westgate. While the Anglo-Saxons and the Middle Ages have never been my strong point, this gallery along with every other displays the city’s development during the period in a straightforward manner that appeals to visitors no matter what age or interests. While you take a walk around the museum, you might wonder where the Tudor era fits in – it doesn’t, because Winchester Museums’ collections for this period are situated in the Westgate Museum, which is definitely worth a visit if you have an interest in the era and particularly, the dissolution of the monasteries which impacted Winchester.
The ground floor welcomes the more recent history of the city known as Winchester, beginning with the 1800s and closing at T Foster and Sons, the tobacconists. As a volunteer, I spend most of my time behind the counter and have learnt a great deal about the shop and its rich history. Established in 1871, Thomas Foster’s shop once showcased and distributed pipe tobacco and ready-rolled cigarettes to customers at 34 High Street. Just over a century later and the shop’s second owner, Stanley Cobb, passed away and the shop was rebuilt within the walls of the City Museum in 1980, preserving every detail down to the mahogany counter constructed from tobacco shipping crates. The displays of cigars and cigarettes ranging from the old favourites Players and Marlboro to the more obscure Abdullah and Perfectos make for an eye-opening cross-section of the history of smoking and the glamour before the health warnings.
While most museums cater to a more mature, intellectual audience, City Museum devotes itself to keeping children happy, with two different Lego play areas and numerous relevant activity stations on each floor. I have to admit, even I haven’t worked out how to complete some of them yet! The most appealing activity for children appears to be the dress-up stations, where visitors can try on outfits fitting for the period each gallery focuses on, from togas to Edwardian servant suits.
With free admission and amazing displays backed up with a friendly atmosphere, I couldn’t ask for more from a museum – even if I do say so myself.