Museum of Somerset Opening

The new Museum of Somerset at Taunton Castle is due to open to the public in late summer. Sarah Ford enjoys an exclusive preview

The new Museum of Somerset at Taunton Castle is due to open to the public in late summer. Sarah Ford enjoys an exclusive preview


An under-floor Plesiosaur, interactive games, eye-catching film projections and a chilling recreation of the Judge Jeffrey trials are some of the exciting highlights at the new Museum of Somerset.

The �6.93 million project to restore historic Taunton Castle, and to rejuvenate Somerset County Museum contained within it, has succeeded in bringing the museum into the 21st century.

When the building reopens later this year - with its modern display techniques and family friendly appeal - much more of the castle will be open to the public, including some of the oldest areas which date from the 12th century.

All galleries have been completely overhauled and refitted, and there will be 25% more display space.

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Somerset County Council has been leading the restoration of the building, which is leased by its owners the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society (SANHS).

Taunton Castle is a Grade 1 Listed Scheduled Ancient Monument standing at the heart of Somerset’s county town, and the museum tells the history of Somerset from prehistoric to modern times.

With the construction works complete, and the re-installation of objects about to start, Somerset Life was invited to an exclusive preview tour as the vision turns into reality.

Trustee of SAHNS Hilary Binding explains that the new museum will boast a new dedicated Learning Centre and a large temporary exhibition gallery capable of staging regional and national touring exhibitions. Improved visitor facilities will also include a new caf� and a bigger shop.

“One of the most exciting things is that we have been able to lay the Low Ham mosaic pavement flat on the floor as it should be,” explains Hilary.

Telling the story of Dido and Aeneas, this 4th century mosaic is one of Somerset’s great archaeological treasures.

Another is the Shapwick canoe – an iron age boat discovered in 1906 and an example of vessels which would have been a common site on Somerset’s rivers and wetlands 2,000 years ago.

Most of the display cases are still waiting to be filled, like the imaginative under floor glass cabinet which will be home to a young Plesiosaur fossil. This Jurassic sea dragon is sure to delight younger visitors!

The redeveloped Military Museum tells the story of Somerset’s regiments from the 17th century to the present day; moving personal accounts from soldiers serving in Somerset’s current regiment, The Rifles, have been filmed for the display.

One of the attention-grabbing exhibits is a stunning tree sculpture. Carved with objects and words reflecting themes from the museum, this has been created by Simon O’Rourke from a 170 year old tree from the Quantocks.

Throughout the museum, the displays are illustrated by the award winning artist Victor Ambrus, known for his work on Channel Four’s Time Team.

The Somerset Room will feature a dramatic overhead display of caldrons, many of which were made in Montacute and South Petherton, and represent probably the most important collection of bronze cooking vessels in the country.

Here, we will also uncover the life stories of significant Somerset people – such as the feisty Christabella Wyndham who once raised a pistol at Oliver Cromwell, only to kill the man standing next to him instead.

For peace and quiet, visitors can retreat to the Reflecting Room, its circular walls filled with Somerset quotations. On a staircase a wall is filled with a fabulous film projection of the dazzling aerial display of thousands of starlings – a regular spectacle on the Somerset Levels.

Here and there you can see how parts of the building has been recovered and preserved.

“We have worked very hard to keep significant bits of the building here,” says Hilary, revealing a tiny old stone staircase.

One charming little space is dedicated to the folk song collections of Cecil Sharpe, while another room pays homage to the explorers and collectors – the likes of Somerset’s John Hanning Speke who discovered the source of the River Nile.

Rebellion is the name of a thought-provoking area transformed into a prison, complete with nooses. Here the Monmouth rebels awaiting their fate come under the watchful eye of the infamous Judge Jeffreys.

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