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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Britain's Best Museums and Galleries by Mark Fisher

After recommending Britain's Best Museums and Galleries I thought I had better buy it and review it. The book is normally £20 but I got it for £13.20 off of Amazon. I ought to stress that before recommending it I had browsed it.

The author, Mark Fisher, has been a Labour MP since 1983 and a formerMinster for the Arts.

The book features 350 reviews of the "best" Museums. A further 100 get mentioned in the regional introductions and get listed in a separate appendix. Each reviewed Museum get a star rating from * to *****

It does not, and should not be expected to, feature opening hours.

Firstly the gripes. The book is broken into regions and not counties , this I can understand but the breakdowns are arbitary and as I'll detail flipping confusing.

Fisher has chosen not to follow an established regional breakdown, he could have chosen the ones the National Trust use or English Heritage or Hudson's Historic Houses but he hasn't.

Here is one example of where the ordering is bizarre.

The county of Buckinghamshire is included in the South East Region, West Midlands and East Midlands!! BUT each region has a different entry! Hertfordshire is also included in the same three regions and Bedfordshire in the two Midlands regions.

Hertfordshire has Walter Rothschildd Zoological Museum in Tring under West Midlands, the Verulaneum Museum St Albans under East Midlands and the Museum of St Albands under South East. That is not helpful is it! Even funnier is that in the appendix for the East Midlands is a museum in Watford!!

As I say the same happens for Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Amusingly the Ascott Collection (Ascott House to you, me and the National Trust) is listed as being in Bedford (Leighton Buzzard) , the actual entry gives the address as Wing, Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire but Wing is in Buckinghamshire!!

Another bug bear is that though the index entry and the start of each region is by place name (not collection) that though this ordering is maintained in the section the place name is omitted. To be fair the index entry contains the page number.

This all felt a bit sloppy to me.

Another thing is names. Buckignham Palace is not called Buckingham Palace but the Queen's Gallery. Which strikes me as bizarre.

But the entries. Fisher reckons that including National Trust collections etc there are some 2000+ museums so he undboutedly has had to cull to reach a still fairly substantial book. Fisher seems to agree with Simon Jenkins that a church/cathedral should be considered a museum but he includes none of them. He will undobutedly argue that Jenkins own England's 1000 best parish churches covers this in much greater detail than he can but he includes the Sandham Memorial Chapel.

His choice of houses and ratings thereof do not, and indeed should not, tally with Jenkins 1000 best English Houses. Jenkins is concerned with the architecture of the house as well as the quality of the contents which is Fisher's raison d'etre for his book .

I have not visited many of the pure museums he mentions but some of the National Trust and private house collections make it into the book and his choices are interesting.

There are two fine houses near Banbury in Oxford. He omits Broughton Castle (one of the 20 to get ***** in Jenkins) but includes Upton House which Jenkins rates lower (both of which I visted recently). And I think both views are right. Broughton is a beautiful building and FEELS like a house, Upton is effectively a museum and the collection is finer.

There are omissions, inclusions that I find bizarre. Kingston Lacy relegated to an Appendix but it was ever thus.

There is a certain eclecticism here, he includes Kew Gardens for instance which wouldn't be my first thought as a Museum.
There are entries that truly make the mouth water the Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge, The British Museum, The V&A to name but three.

If you take this book with those by Simon Jenkins (on churches and houses) and the annual good garden guide (published by Saga) you have a comprehesnive guide to England's major attractions. Someone will have to do a similar job to Jenkins on Wales and Scotland.

Yes it is a book with flaws but those flaws are not fatal (and can and should be corrected) and the joy of the text and photos more than compensate. Now excuse me I have lots more places I need to visit.

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