8 of Birmingham’s best museums

It’s fitting that a city so associated with ingenuity and invention has several superb museums to explore. Once known as the ‘City of 1000 Trades’, Birmingham was a mainstay of Britain’s Industrial Revolution and the genius Scottish inventor James Watt chose to make it his home.

From 19th century impressionist masterpieces to interactive mini-cities, Birmingham’s museums have plenty of appeal for all ages and interests and are also easy to get to. Here are eight of the best museums in the city.

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Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery dates from 1885 © Alamy

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is best for exhibits

Birmingham’s 19th Century Museum and Art Gallery has been a centerpiece of the city center since 1885 and is particularly known for its extensive collection of works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including Edward Burne-Jones. In recent years, however, it’s the quality and nature of BMAG’s exhibits that have really set it apart.

Accommodation The house of metal hugely popular exhibition on local Black Sabbath heroes at the poignant We Built This City which examined the hardships endured by post-war Irish immigrants in Birmingham, BMAG always sets the bar high for its rotating cast of colorful and thought-provoking displays.

A large brick mill with a tall chimney beside a pond
Sarehole Mill was an inspiration to a young JRR Tolkien © Courtesy Photo

Sarehole Mill is full of literary inspiration

At first glance, the old red-brick watermill in leafy Hall Green probably wouldn’t be something you’d immediately associate with a multi-billion dollar franchise. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the 250-year-old man Sarehole Mill and the nearby forests of Moseley Bog fascinated and inspired a young JRR Tolkien, who lived just across the road.

These days, visitors can explore the mill and its surroundings and see where the first sparkles of Middle-earth, The Lord of the Ringsand The Hobbit began to percolate in Tolkien’s mind. Stock up on freshly baked pizzas in the stone courtyard of Sarehole on weekends (something that certainly wasn’t available in Tolkien’s day).

A jeweler works with a flame on a metal jewel in a workshop
Birmingham’s jewelery district accounts for 40% of UK jewelery production © Courtesy Photo

The Jewelery Quarter Museum is like a time capsule

While its dimly lit bars and gourmet restaurants transformed the Jewelers’ Quarter into a popular nightlife destination, this beautiful neighborhood flourished in the 19th century thanks to the production of its eponymous jewelry. In fact, the region still accounts for 40% of UK jewelery production.

Learn about conditions back then at the Museum of the Jewelery Quarter, where the old Smith and Pepper workshop – with its dusty benches, workstations and tools – was left exactly as it was when the company moved in. ceased operations in 1981 Live demonstrations by experts are particularly effective in bringing this distant period to life.

An outdoor play area for children, with drinking troughs for water games and tunnels for climbing
Get hands-on in the play areas of the Thinktank Science Museum © Alamy

Thinktank is Birmingham’s best museum for families

Science museums are always great because of their generational appeal and Thinktank at the sprawling Millenium Point is a perfect example. An award-winning museum, its planetarium, interactive mini-city (MiniBrum) and science garden are ideal for entertaining and educating children.

A short walk from the city center, its huge space means Thinktank also has room for unique historical and local exhibits. These include Birmingham’s only surviving tram, James Watt’s Smethwick Engine (the oldest working steam engine in the world, built in 1791) and a legendary Spitfire fighter plane of the Second World War II hanging from the ceiling.

The Barber Institute of Fine Art has many lesser-known works of art

Exploring the elegant grounds of the University of Birmingham is an enjoyable experience in itself, but hidden behind the School of Mathematics lies – cliche alert – the archetypal hidden gem. Far from the prying eyes of the downtown crowds, the peaceful art deco hallways of the Barber Institute of Fine Art house a splendid collection of little-known works such as Monet, Turner and Van Gogh.

Of particular note is its sublime collection of 19th century French paintings, with a series of masterpieces by the Impressionists, including that of Edouard Manet. Portrait of Carolus Duran and Degas’ Jockeys before the race. Reaching the museum along the winding stretch of sun-dappled canal from the postbox is also one of Birmingham’s finest walks.

A series of antique fountain pen nibs in a display case
The pens are an integral part of local Birmingham history © Courtesy Photo

The Pen Museum is the most unusual museum in the city

Long before keyboards and touch screens, writing reigned supreme. So while today it may seem like a dying art, some wish to celebrate the practice in all its glory and there is nowhere in Britain more appropriate than Birmingham.

In the 19th century, the city manufactured 75% of all pens in the world and in doing so helped democratize writing by making them cheap and affordable. Head to the pen museum in the Jewelers’ Quarter to try your hand at calligraphy, write with pen and ink, and learn more about this little-known part of local history.

An art exhibit with strange branch-like structures holding globes
The End of Fun, an exhibition by artist Kristof Kintera at IKON Gallery in Birmingham, UK © Alamy

IKON Gallery is the best place for contemporary art

Housed in a beautiful Victorian Gothic Revival boarding school, IKON Gallery was founded in 1965 as an alternative artist-run space and now features a regular program of exhibitions, events, learning workshops and seminars, representing some of the best visual artists in the world.

Combining established artists with emerging artists, its wide and bright hallways allow the space for artists to express themselves in any way they choose, often with a focus on culture and education. Ikon is also home to Birmingham’s only independent art bookshop on the ground floor, an absorbing little place that often takes up as much time as the museum itself.

A grand Jacobean style red brick mansion with a large central clock tower
Aston Hall is a grand mansion and Birmingham landmark © Alamy

Aston Hall is great for learning all about Civil War history

Dating back over 400 years, Aston Hall is one of Birmingham’s grandest and finest landmarks, though it still bears the scars of a turbulent early life. Less than 10 years after its completion, it was damaged after an attack by Parliamentarian troops during the English Civil War in 1643.

Book a tour of this ornate Jacobean mansion and see the famous hole caused by a cannonball going through a window and down a flight of stairs. And don’t forget to explore the magnificent Long Gallery and the King Charles Room (where King Charles I is said to have spent the night before the Battle of Edgehill).

Keep an eye out for what’s next Independent Birmingham Festival too, a summertime celebration of the city’s superb food scene that often takes place at Aston Hall.

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