A Night at a Dorchester Museum

Across the country this month museums and heritage sites will throw open their doors after hours for the annual Museums at Night event. Kate Hall visits Dorchester's seven participating venues to find out more

A Night at a  Dorchester Museum

Across the country this month museums and heritage sites will throw open their doors after hours for the annual Museums at Night event. Kate Hall visits Dorchester’s seven participating venues to find out more

rom teddy bears to dinosaurs, Egyptian mummies to Thomas Hardy and terracotta warriors to Dorset Yeomanry Dorchester’s six museums offer so much to visitors, whatever their age or interest. These museums along with Poole Museum, the Red House Museum in Christchurch and Lyme Regis Museum, will be throwing open their doors during this years Museums at Night event where visitors can indulge in an after-hours celebration of arts, history and heritage during this special family event.

In Dorchester the Teddy Bear Museum, Dinosaur Museum, Tutankhamun Exhibition, Dorset County Museum, Keep Military Museum and Terracotta Warriors Museum have all teamed up, along with the magnificent Roman Town House, for a very special evening on 19 May. Many Dorchester caf�s and restaurants are opening later too and offering special deals on meals; so Museums at Night is definitely the night to be in historic Dorchester.

The longer opening hours give people, who may not always find the time to browse their local museum, an opportunity to share in the rich community heritage we have in the county as well as experience some of the world-class collections we have here. Tickets for the event represent excellent value with �8 for a family ticket for all 7 venues if bought in advance, or �12 on the night.

During last year’s Museums at Night event my daughter and I had a lovely evening wandering around Dorchester’s museums. Granted, it was hardly dark when we finished our marathon museum visit, but there was a friendly, lively feel to the town as families and other groups met up in the various museums and caf�s along the way.

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At the Roman Town House, most of which is usually viewed from behind glass with access restricted to archaeologists and researchers, visitors were able to walk inside this remarkable building and connect with their ancient ancestors. My daughter and I were exploring the ruin trying to work out which room was which. Words like ‘hypocaust’ were being discussed in a real "Time Team’ fashion. One couple we met were visiting the Roman Town House for the first time and were thrilled to have exclusive access to such an important heritage site.

Back at the Dorset County Museum, in the High Street, the Museum caf� was doing brisk business and its great exhibition halls were filled with visitors marvelling at their fascinating range of local historic objects; the Jurassic Gallery with its fearsome ichthyosaurs was particularly popular with younger visitors. "During Museums at Night the galleries actually feel quite different," says Rachel Cole, marketing manager at the museum. "The visiting groups of families and friends are getting special access to something really exciting. I also love the buzz in the town – the High Street is really alive and people are having a great time."

This was very obvious at the Keep Military Museum on the Bridport Road, a stunning building which houses a military history of those who fought and served in regiments with links to Dorset and Devon. The stories here cross three centuries and are not just about guns and medals. They are about real people who did both ordinary and extraordinary things in taking the ‘King’s Shilling’ as their exhibits reveal.

We met a group of ladies from a local Guides Groups out together for the evening and looking at places that might go on the activity list for their Guide Camps. They were really enjoying what might seem to be a ‘men only’ museum. An exhibit featuring Hitler’s desk was a real surprise for many and was generating quite a lot of discussion. While we were there Museum Director, Colin Parr was being quizzed intensely by a group of young boys who could not get enough of the stories of weapons and the other objects on show. Even my daughter was fascinated. Visitors who braved the circular stairs up to the roof of The Keep were rewarded with the most spectacular view of the town and surrounding areas on a late spring evening; even the children could be heard to say "wow!" when they saw the vista.

The hustle and bustle in the smaller venues makes the experience of Museums at Night all the more exciting. Imagine taking that first peek through the hole in the wall at the wondrous treasures inside an ancient Egyptian tomb. At the Tutankhamun Exhibition the area was a-buzz as everyone was keen to do peek through the hole just as Howard Carter had done in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. Elsewhere, the Terracotta Warriors gave visitors a real sense of the scale and grandeur of a lost Chinese dynasty. Exact replicas they may be, but they are still stunning and touching is compulsory.

Outside the Tutankhamen Exhibition, which is celebrating its 25th year, we chatted with families who were thrilled at the opportunity to actually touch and feel objects at the exhibition. "Kids need to touch the exhibits to really get the experience and some sense of what things are," enthused one dad. The same was true down at the Dinosaur Museum, on Icen Way, where the occasional squeal could be heard between dinosaur roars as children got up-close and personal with a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The Teddy Bear Museum was a real hit with my daughter; she relished the opportunity to ‘cuddle’ life-size furry beasties that would have been so much part of her childhood but were still fascinating even for a 12–year-old. The scenes in this delightfully nostalgic museum appeal to the child in all of us.

All of the museums were reporting record visitor numbers. Tim Batty, Director of the World Heritage Exhibitions, recorded an impressive 3,000 visits on the evening. "I think part of the charm of this event is that each museum has got something different to offer so people can zip around and get a flavour of each one and find the best bits."

For me and my daughter the occasion was as much a social one as it was about the cultural extravaganza. And I am sure that my daughter’s parting remark was echoed across the town by many other youngsters that night "Do we have to go home now?" U

Museums at Night in Dorchester 19 May 2012

All seven venues in Dorchester are open from 5pm to 9pm on Saturday 19 May. The cost of a ticket, which gives you entry to all particpating venues, is �8 (in advance), whether you are an individual, a couple or a family of up to 2 adults and 4 children. Advance tickets can be purchased in any of the six museums or at Dorchester Tourist Information Centre. Tickets purchased on the night are �12.00.

Dorchester’s Museums at Night

The Teddy Bear Museum, Salisbury Street


Tutankhamun Exhibition, High West Street


The Dinosaur Museum, Icen Way


Dorset County Museum, High West Street


The Keep Military Museum, Bridport Road


Terracotta Warriors, Salisbury Street


The Roman Town House, Colliton Park


18 May:

18 May:

0845 603 5635

More details


18 May:

theoliverholtgallery.org, 01935 810471

19 May:


Scaplen’s Court, Sarum Street, Poole,

01202 262600

Museums at Night Across the UK

18-20 May

For details of all venues, events and activities visit

museumsatnight.org.uk where listings information will be updated right up until the weekend itself.

A Secret Garden at Night at Poole Museum

Scaplen’s Court secret herb garden opens for the Museums at Night event. Visitors will be able to take a look around Poole’s most exclusive secret garden, enjoy a glass of wine and listen to some historical music. More details

The Oliver Holt Gallery, Sherborne

The Oliver Holt Gallery with Sherborne Museum and the Becket Room Archive stage a twilight promenade.

More details

The Red House Museum, Christchurch

7pm: The Barber Surgeon Pays a Night Visit. Suitable for children aged 8+ but not the faint-hearted!

Cost: �5pp. Booking essential

Lyme Regis Museum

6.30pm: Hedge Britannia

8pm: The Museums-at-Night Moth Ball !

Booking for the Moth Ball advised

More details lymeregismuseum.co.uk, 01297 443370

Other Dorset venues taking part in Museums at Night

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