“ One of the largest municipal museums in the country plus a Winter Gardens housing 1,500 exotic and unusual flowers. „
I grew up in Sunderland, and moved away when I was 12 years old. The old museum and Library had always been a part of my life up until then. I would visit every Saturday with my Grandmother to visit the library and then up to the cafe for a cup of tea and a cake.
Since moving away 20 years ago I hadn't been back to the building until recently. Prompted by my Grans insistence I MUST visit, I went along and was shocked at the change I found.
~ A brief history of Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens ~
Sunderland was the first town or city out of London to have a publicly funded museum. Established in 1846, it soon outgrew it's building and in 1879 a purpose built Library, Museum and Winter Gardens were built on Burdon road, at the edge of Mowbray Park and is where it still stands today.
The original Winter Gardens were destroyed during WW2 and were replaced by a brick extension in the sixties, making it one of the largest municipal museums in the country.
In 1995 the public library was moved out into it's own premises and with National Lottery heritage fund money, the museum was redeveloped. Along with a brand new Winter Gardens, the new museum opened in 2001.
~ Visiting The Museum ~
I went along to the museum with my Gran and 4 year old daughter not at all sure what to expect. From the outside, apart from a new entrance area the museum looked exactly as it had all those years ago. However entering the museum I was instantly struck by how modern it now actually is.
As you walk into the vestibule area it's light and airy with a very small gift shop. A corridor stretches forward and there are pictures and busts of well known Sunderland people such as William Pile and Jack Crawford.
On one side of the corridor are conference rooms and on the other are what I would describe as little cul-de-sacs. There are three in total each with it's own theme. Here you can find a Textiles display with locally made clippy mats and embroidery as well as a display of Greek textiles. Another section entitled Time Machine houses the whacky and wonderful including the first Nissan Bluebird built in Sunderland (a car I remember well as my Dad drove one years ago!), a penny farthing, and relics from ancient China. I also found an old friend here, Wallis The Lion, who found a home at the museum in 1869 after mauling his tamer when visiting Sunderland with the circus. When I was a little girl I used to find this stuffed Lion terrifying and huge, now I have to say he looks a bit raggy and moth eaten and a lot smaller than I remembered. The final section tells the story of coal mining in Sunderland and was a really interesting section. There was a video show that we didn't see, but I enjoyed seeing the exhibits of inside a minors cottage and reading about life in a mining village.
We then moved upstairs to the first floor to the 20th century Sunderland Gallery. This area was absolutly fascinating charting life in Sunderland in 1919, 1949, 1969 and 1999. There are rooms set up from each era and a video of an actress playing the part of a women from that time, and I thoroughly enjoyed these. I was quite surprised to see some old toys from my own childhood displayed here too.
There is also a very sad little rocking horse on display here. Sunderlands most horrific tragedy occurred in 1883 when a rare show was put on for poor children at The Victoria Hall Theatre. When free toys where thrown into the stalls, the children in the gallery above made a dash to get downstairs and try and collect one for themselves. This resulted in a huge crush in the stairwell where 183 children perished. The innocent little rocking horse is one of the actual toys thrown into the audience that day. I remember being told this story often at school and at home, and I found it very sad to see.
This area covers all aspects of social history in Sunderland including fashion, housing, local politics, entertainment and diet. There are even very realistic displays of food from each era...the cow heel pie doesn't look all that appetising, in fact it looks like it has indeed been there since 1919. There's a lot of interactive areas here, my daughter loved the giant dolls house. I was very excited at this area, as I love social history and learning how ordinary people lived, however I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed at the upkeep of some of the displays. Lights weren't working in some, phones that allowed you to listen to people talking about Sunderland where taped up with masking tape and overall it had a bit of a run down feel.
The run down theme continued into the other displays on the second on third floors, which were a nature area (very interactive for children, my daughter liked this area but I wasn't so keen) and upstairs in the launched on Wearside exhibition, which pays homage to Sunderland's ship building industry.
We also saw some exhibits of Sunderland Glass, which is pretty impressive and I enjoyed, and pottery which was less interesting. An art Gallery has the largest exhibition of Lowry paintings out of Manchester and there's a section dedicated to Roman and Anglo Saxon life in the area. I didn't find this section very interesting, perhaps living in Cumbria and seeing better exhibitions of this period is why.
Our final stop was the Winter Gardens. This huge glass building houses over 2000 species of plants and is a pleasant and relaxing area. You can walk or take a lift for a birds eye view, admire a very modern waterfall and marvel at the biggest Goldfish I have ever seen swimming in a pretty little stream.
After seeing everything we wanted to see, we then went to the bar and brasserie in the museum. I highly recommend this place, even if your not visiting the museum. I had the hugest sandwich on delicious home-made bread and served with salad and crisps. This was more like a main meal than a snack and well worth the £4.75 I paid. There's waiter service in here, and I found it a pleasant way to end our visit.
~ My Thoughts ~
The museum has certainly changed since I was a child. It's packed with loads of fascinating displays of life in Sunderland. I think perhaps having a local connection made it more interesting for me. I grew up with stories of great grandparents, aunts and uncles who had worked in the coal mines, ship yards and glass works. I love social history and preffered these displays by far, in particular the mining and 19th century Sunderland exhibitions. I liked how it didn't just focus on the industrial side, but of the communities that sprang up as a result. I liked learning about the lives of the wives, children, and of schools, churches, public houses and entertainment. I do think it's worth a visit for those who don't have a connection with the area, especially as the museum is free, but wonder if it would be as interesting as I found it.
I was disappointed that some of the displays and interactive features weren't working correctly and seemed run down in areas. It's not how I expected a museum which was only reopened 8 years ago to be. Perhaps charging a small fee for admission would help, and I certainly wouldn't have minded doing so. Although the risk there would be alienating the people it's there to serve, the ordinary folk of Sunderland. There are donation points littered around the museum and I did make a donation.
There's an awful lot of written information and video/audio displays. Unfortunately being with my daughter and Gran I had to skip most of these and would like to return alone and spend more time here. The winter gardens are very nice, although not impressive. They are certainly tranquil and peaceful, definitely worth a look.
I also think the restaurant is highly recommendable in it's own right. It is such a nice place with the most fantastic food. I'd eat here again without visiting the museum.
Overall I'd recommend The Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. For a free half a day out you won't do any better. Mowbray park sits right behind it and is also worth a visit. My only advice here would be don't feed the ducks! We did and where besieged by huge and vicious seagulls!
Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens
Monday - Saturday 10am - 5pm
Sunday 2pm - 5pm
Closed: 25 & 26 December & 1 January.
Admission is free.
I went to university in Sunderland and found that if I ever needed to chill out between reading sessions this was the best place to visit.
The museum is very easy to get to and is situated literally just around the corner from the city centre metro train station and not far from the Park Lane main bus interchange. It is also near to The Bridges shopping centre.
The museum also overlooks the beautiful Mowbray Park - an unmissable attraction if you are ever visiting the museum. The park is choc full of brilliant modern art sculptures and historic monuments. There are safe play areas for children and hills to climb where you can get fantastic views over the city for miles in each direction. The pond, favoured by seagulls, has a cute, friendly walrus sculpture on its shoreline! There is a war memorial and a moving statue of a woman cradling a dead child - this is encased in glass. The latter is a memorial to the child victims of a tragedy that occured in 1883. 183 children were crushed when they rushed to collect a free toy horse at a theatre show giveaway. The tragedy is explored in more detail in a display in the museum, and there is even one of the toy horses housed in a display cabinet. It sends shivers down your spine to see it.
There is no entrance fee to the museum, although there are collection boxes inside where you are asked to donate for the running costs. It is well worth donating something or just purchasing something at the shop on your way out.
There is lots to see and do inside. Many of the displays are child friendly. The story of a performing lion who malled his keeper - whose stuffed remains sit under a spotlight whilst 'The Lion sleeps Tonight' plays non-stop is particularly amusing and memorable.
There are hands on displays where kids can push buttons and light things up or play sound clips - these are educational and fun. There is a great display which celebrates the mining history of the area and allows us to feel what it was like being down the mines by re-creating the darkness and close tunnel effect.
There are some adult-based archeology sections where there are numerous collections of inplements from all over the world. This is on the lower level.
On the upper levels there is a brilliant interactive unit which shows what life was like in Sunderland in three periods of time. The 1960's version is brilliant, and the display is full of Beatles memorablilia and quirky, flower pattern shift dresses! Groovy!
There is a small taxidermy collection - it is astonishing and a little eerie as a small glass case is packed tight with creatures of all kinds, sitting side by side, whilst undistinguishable animal noises are piped through a speaker overhead. The dark curved corridor this is in then leads into an area where live insects and fish are kept. This is an interesting area for kids as there are some gross, scary eight legged things and dozens of creepy crawlies to get excited by!
There are some computers set up nearby this area which will help children to learn through interactive software. These are very good as it means you get to put your feet up for a few minutes and learn something at the same time!
There is an art gallery on the upper floor. This has some older collections and some pieces I'm familiar with: Rossetti and Lowry, for instance. There is often a travelling exhibition too. The museum also often shows the work of local art groups in a small makeshift gallery outside of the main one. It is lovely to see how talented the locals are.
After visiting the displays I recommend heading to the Winter Gardens. The giant glass dome is a major greenhouse filled with exotic plants from around the globe. There is a small, bridged stream inside and you can wander around the pathways and walk up to a balcony and look down from above. It is very relaxing to spend time here and the air feels fresh and magical. I also get a big laugh out of looking up at the roof of the glass dome and watching the seagulls waddle about! Try looking up and see what I mean!
There is a small cafe alongside the gardens where you can get refreshments and snacks for a very reasonable price. It can get very busy though.
The shop near the exit sells postcards and prints of the artwork in the gallery as well as books, pens, keyrings and other children's items.
This is definately my favourite museum in the North East and I never visit Sunderland without heading here!
Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens opened to the public in July 2001 following two years of redevelopment work paid for by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. One of the most visited museums outside the capital, it stands on the edge of the Victorian Mowbray Park a short walk from the Bridges Shopping Centre and the Metro link to Newcastle. At the glazed entrance, a gift shop extends to the right and Museum Street commences directly ahead. The first display is of Sunderland Heroes - campaign medals and a small memorial to the 197 men of the 125th Anti - Tank Regiment who were killed or imprisoned at the fall of Singapore, England caps and club medals belonging to Raich Carter, and photos of the local diver Harry Watts, described by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie as "the bravest man I ever met." Turn right under the widescreen TV for Textile Traditions, a circle of touch screen displays, children?s clothes, 18th century bedding imported from the Greek islands, quilted petticoats and knitted Ganseys, jumpers worn by the Volunteer Life Brigade. Walk across the corridor for the Sunderland Pottery exhibits, held in a bright room with white arched windows looking out on traffic lights and Yates's Wine Lodge. The first pottery in the area opened in the early 18th century, and the city exported more than 300,000 pieces - over half of which went to Holland - at it?s 1818 peak. Teapots, figurines, mugs, creamware jugs, blue and white tea bowls, butter dishes, pots and plates represent the finest work from the 16 potteries that operated before the last closed in 1957. Narrated videos detail the manufacturing process, while display cases are crammed with souvenir pieces sold to visiting sailors, Napoleonic War commemorative work, glazed bowls with Chinese willow, classical Greek temples, landscapes from 'The Grand Tour' and Sunderland's iron bridges, and pottery dedicated to visiting luminaries such as Byron, who was briefly
married to a local girl, and Garibaldi, who visited the region in 1854. Out past the bust of William Pile, a prominent local shipyard owner, continue across the corridor to the Time Machine, a small room showcasing the oldest and strangest exhibits in the museum's collection. A 1920's diver?s suits stands over a 19th century silver galleon. A one-metre high wooden bottle of Vaux stout washed up on a Northumberland beach is propped up in a corner next to the first car off the nearby Nissan production line in 1986. A 19th century walrus head from Siberia hangs from a wall behind Wallace the Lion, a stuffed circus animal who died in the town in 1965 and now glares through a glass partition at Egyptian fossils, a mummified dog, wooden tomb figures, Samurai figures, carved ivory balls and the top of a Chinese pagoda. Next door in Life & Work in the Coal Mining Communities of East Durham, banners from Murton, Seaham, Dawdon, Ryhope and Monkwearmouth collieries hang over the dark, selectively illuminated entrance. Turn left past the murals of black and white photographs and the collection of gas lamps and engraved glasses and sit in the mock pit showing videos on a continuous loop. A solid, half ton piece of coal mined for the 1929 North East Coast Exhibition towers above a scale model of a pit head; rooms from a Methodist chapel and a Rheumatic clinic lead to a colliery house with a kitchen range and décor straight out of Orwell's 'The Road To Wigan Pier', Surrounding a map showing the decline of the area's coal mining areas, a cardboard cut out of Margaret Thatcher smiles through the denouement of 1984-5 - grim faced police lines, scuffling miners and a simple black and white list of collieries followed by their date of closure. The final room on the ground floor, Secrets of the Past, is directly opposite and contains Medieval window glass and plaster, bronze seals, a model of Wearmouth Monastery, a revolving Anglo - Sa
xon stone head, Roman coins, Bronze Age spears, Neolithic arrowheads and animal skulls. A flight of stairs ends at Sunderland?s Glorious Glass, a y-shaped corridor of Art Deco and pressed glass, a 200-piece Londonderry set and exhibition artefacts like glass swords, walking sticks and miniature cannons. Continue up the final flight of stairs for the Art Gallery, a terracotta and blue walled square holding twenty L.S. Lowry works as well as Victorian masterpieces donated when the premises first opened as the first municipal museum outside of London. Many of Lowry's works are on local industrial themes ? he spent much of his later life at a hotel in Seaburn - though there also some darker autobiographical sketches including a self ? portrait showing a dark column rising from a bleak, featureless sea. Burmese artefacts collected during the days of Empire are displayed next to the entrance, with marble Buddhas, teak chairs, ivory hilted silver swords and boat shaped boxes facing a white marble Victorian fireplace, a carved oak Renaissance Madonna and Child and oil paintings including one of the original Winter Gardens, which was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb in 1941, across the shiny floor. Outside the gallery The Open Space displays contemporary paintings and photography by local artists and a Special Exhibitions Room is currently showing the Pre-Raphaelite works of William Bell Scott. Down the stairs and through the Glorious Glass exhibit, Sunderland in the 20th Century opens to the right of the central corridor. Colourful boards list important dates such as the launching of the final ship and the closure of the last mine while displays focused on 1919, 1949, 1969 and 1999 include CDs of popular music from each era and novelty objects. There are life size exhibits of a 1919 kitchen and washing room, a 1949 living room, a 1969 teenager?s bedroom and a computer in the corner of a 1999 single mother?s living room, all decorated with period furnishi
ngs and accompanied by video presentations of local women telling their own stories. Glass cases in the centre of the room detail typical meals down the years - cow heel pie, panackelty, ready made steak and kidney pie and pizza and oven chips. Up another staircase to Launched on Wearside, a room dedicated to the locally built ships from a dead industry that spanned 600 years. A full - size reconstruction of a ship?s bow occupies the centre of the floor, its interior playing videos that detail the positive negative aspects of an industry that employed a third of the town?s adult workforce between 1880 and 1950. Poignant displays of famous ships and defunct occupations line the walls amid a soundtrack of riveters' hammers and the constant ring of metal on metal. Turn right back down at the foot of the stairs for Worlds Alive and Lost Worlds, rooms full of rock and fossil samples, video presentations and stuffed lions, tigers, crocodiles and polar bears. Then return to Museum Street on the ground floor and turn left for the restaurant and Winter Gardens. Take the spiralling metal staircase or the glass lift up to the 30 - metre high dome above a glass and steel rotunda full of 146 species of 1,500 plants. A circular walkway at treetop level looks out on overhanging pink flowers, spiky cactus plants, ferns, palm and bamboo, Chinese yam, Australian eucalyptus, Arabian coffee plants and fragrant lemon, banana and orange trees. A cascade of water slides down a rectangular block of stainless steel to a miniature gorge and fern gully running away from a pond full of Koi carp and tiny plantations of tea, coffee, sugar, date palms, mangoes, vanilla and olives. Who would have thought that Sunderland could be so very interesting? DETAILS Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, Burdon Road, Sunderland. (0191) 553 2323 Signposted from Sunderland rail and metro station. Open 10 - 4 Mondays, 10 - 5 Tuesday
to Saturday and 2 - 5 on Sundays. Free Admission. Full disabled access. WEBSITES http://www.twmuseums.org.uk/sunderland/index.html http://www.sunderland-echo.co.uk/Custom_pages/CustomPage.asp?Page=688 http://newworlddesigns.co.uk/smuseum/pages/