Bath has huge choice of different museums for its relatively small size. There’s everything from the world famous Roman Baths with its hot springs to The Fashion Museum that looks at the changing face of fashion from Georgian to Punk! Some are related to Bath’s social history such as The Jane Austen Centre and the Bath at Work Museum, while others show how Bath in its Georgian heyday would have looked such as at No 1 The Royal Crescent. There is something to suit everyone from high brow intellectuals to families looking for a fun day out. Save money and lookout for combined ticket entry offers.
The Jane Austen Centre
One of the more recent attractions is The Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street. This is hugely popular and caters for the never-ending fascination people have with Jane Austen, her life and works. Jane Austen visited Bath and lived here between 1801 to 1806. She first visited Bath in 1799 at the age of 21 with her mother not long after she finished writing Northanger Abbey under its former title "Susan".
Both her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion use Bath and areas around Somerset as a backdrop. Bath’s season and the etiquette with which the gentry conducted themselves was typical of that often humorously examined in Austen’s novels and it is highly likely that Jane Austen found much inspiration from her stays in Bath.
The Jane Austen Centre is housed in one of the Georgian terraced townhouses on Gay Street leading up to The Circus. Jane Austen lived at 25 Gay Street during 1805. Its displays, including period costumes, and information take you through Jane Austen’s life and work and the importance of Bath within it. The Centre is very active in all things to do with Austen and has organised a variety of exhibitions such as one displaying several costumes that were designed by Andrea Galer for ITV’s adaptation of Persuasion.
The Jane Austen Centre also organises guided walks, "Walking Tours of Jane Austen’s Bath" that take you to places where Jane Austen lived, walked, visited and shopped as well as places that were featured in Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Tours run on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays and start from outside the KC Change Visitor Information Centre in Abbey Churchyard at 11am.
The tour lasts for around one and a half hours. In September an annual Jane Austen Festival is held in Bath that includes Europe’s largest Regency Promenade – where participants stroll around Bath dolled up in period dress – The Jane Austen Festival Regency Ball and dance workshop in The Assembly Rooms – where you can learn how to take part in the dances of the period – as well as a host of activities relating to film, music, lectures, walking tours and outdoor entertainment. A shop and Regency tea rooms are on-site.
The Fashion Museum
You can buy a joint saver ticket in conjunction with the Roman Baths for the Fashion Museum. The Fashion Museum is in The Assembly Rooms near The Circus. (It was previously called the Museum of Costume). The museum traces fashion over 400 years and was based on a private collection of Doris Langley Moore, a collector, costume designer and author.
Early pieces include 18th century men’s embroidered waistcoats and a ladies gown dating from 1742. The bulk of the collection stems from the 19th century when dresses were slimmer as seen in many a Jane Austen novel adaptation. The most diverse collection is the 20th century collection that includes works by the worlds’ leading fashion designers, particularly British designers like Normal Hartnell.
The collection continues to grow and a Contemporary Collection is continuously being updated. Each year experts choose a Dress of the Year that they feel represents the most important new ideas in contemporary fashion. It’s a fantastic museum that acts as a walk down memory lane for some, but as a reminder of how things have changed, particularly for women and how fashion has often reflected those changes.
The Museum also puts together a variety of changing exhibitions looking at different aspects of fashion such as the 1977 exhibition that looks at how a seminal year for pop culture is reflected in photographs. Some of the exhibitions give adults and children alike the opportunity to try on replicas of costumes like corsets. It’s a fantastic way to see what women have endured in the name of fashion!
The Assembly Rooms
The Assembly Rooms is one of the first Georgian buildings in Bath and was the social centre of Georgian society where much dancing and flirting went on. The building was bombed during World War II but was rebuilt and opened again in 1963. Cared for by the National Trust, The Assembly Rooms has four rooms you can see: The Ball Room, the Tea Room (also known as the Concert Room), the Octagon Room, and a Card Room.
All rooms still have the purpose made chandeliers dating from 1771 – although they have undergone repairs and adaptations over the years. A part of one of them nearly hit the painter Thomas Gainsborough who lived in the Circus at one time. One of his paintings of the first Master of Ceremonies, Captain William Wade, still hangs in the Octagon Room.
Museum of Bath at Work
For a different take on Bath’s history check out the Museum of Bath at Work. Here you can find out how everyday Bathonians have worked and lived over 2000 years through a variety of occupations including textiles, fizzy drink production, baking, bath stone mining, bookbinding and tourism.
Demand for Bath’s furniture made by craftsmen in the city boomed in the eighteenth century and became world famous due to the city’s popularity. Ocean liners, department stores and markets around the world sustained many businesses including those of Keevil and Son whose workshops have been reconstructed at the Museum.
You can even see a unique example of a Royal Bath Chair that was originally shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that was given to the Empress of France by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. The Museum also holds the Bowler Collection – a huge collection of paraphernalia that was rescued from J B Bowler’s engineering workshops and fizzy pop factory that was based in Bath and traded for nearly 100 years. Thousands of items have been displayed in authentic Victorian settings related to all aspects of Bath’s businesses. A variety of activities run all year round and various seminar spaces plus a cafe are on-site.
The Bath Preservation Trust Museums
The Bath Preservation Trust has several museums in Bath including No 1 The Royal Crescent, The Building of Bath Museum, Beckford’s Tower and Museum and The Herschel Museum of Astronomy. All have admission prices that help to preserve this historic building.
No 1 The Royal Crescent Bath
Number 1 The Royal Crescent is one of the most popular museums in Bath’s centre. As the name suggests it is on the magnificent Royal Crescent that contains thirty residential houses built between 1767 and 1774. It is one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in the country.
The Bath Preservation Trust has restored the interior of this townhouse, the first to be built in the Crescent, to show how the fashionable elite would have lived in the eighteenth century. Several rooms have been decorated and laid out as they would have been used such as the drawing room laid out for tea, the dining room were residents would have entertained guests in sumptuous surroundings and the gentleman’s study where the men would retire for port and a smoke and a game of cards.
Beckford’s Tower & Museum
Two miles north of The Royal Crescent is Beckford’s Tower, a neo-classical tower on Lansdown Hill. It was built by Henry Goodridge as a retreat for the eccentric writer William Beckford to house his precious collections of art and rare books. Within the tower today a museum is dedicated to Beckford’s life and works as a writer, collector and patron of the arts.
Beckford spent his later years living in Bath in Lansdown Crescent and wished to be buried near the Tower. However at first he was laid to rest in Bath Abbey, but later moved to be reburied in his self-designed sarcophagus on a hillock in the centre of an oval ditch near the Beckford’s Tower as he wished. The climb up the spiral staircase in the Tower to the Belvedere is worth it for the uninterrupted panoramic views of the countryside around Bath.
The Herschel Museum of Astronomy
The Herschel Museum of Astronomy is a fully restored Georgian townhouse on King Street in the centre of Bath. It was home to William Herschel, musician and astronomer, who discovered the planet Uranus. As well as seeing how the house would have looked in his time including telescopes that he made himself, you can watch a film in The Start Vault narrated by Patrick Moore that takes you through a journey in space and tells you more of the history of the house. This can be a fun attraction for astronomy minded families and holiday activities are often organised during school holidays.
The Building of Bath Museum
The Building of Bath Museum looks at the architectural legacy left by Bath’s renowned architects and how this transformed a provincial West Country town into a world famous Georgian spa town. It shows how classical design has inspired much of Bath’s architecture and how the buildings themselves were built and what materials were used. There is a collection of authentic and specialist tools and hands-on exhibits.