Dorchester museums are where to discover the social history, landscapes, military history and literary heritage of Dorset. They also include some of the region’s best family friendly museums. The Dorset County Museum in the centre is an independent museum run by the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society. Permanent galleries inside include ‘A Writer’s Dorset’ with a reconstruction of Thomas Hardy’s study from his home at Max Gate and numerous personal effects belonging to the literary giant.
Interesting re-creation exhibitions include The Tutankhamun Exhibition and The Terracotta Warriors Museum. Here you can see accurate replicas of artefacts from both sites. For families The Dinosaur Museum is a great introduction to the Dorset Jurassic Coast for children, featuring life-sized dinosaurs that may once have roamed the area. The Teddy Bear Museum is a favourite with children and adults alike. The Keep Military Museum in an imposing castellated building contains exhibits exploring Dorset military history by focusing in on several historic regiments. You can also take a tour of the Georgian Old Crown Court and Cells in the Shire Hall where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried and where Thomas Hardy was a magistrate.
Dorset County Museum
Dorset County Museum on High West Street in Dorchester famously holds the largest Thomas Hardy collection in the world. Many of his manuscripts, books, diaries, photographs, notebooks and paintings were bequeathed to the museum by Hardy’s second wife and secretary, Florence Hardy. Other exhibits in permanent galleries cover archaeology and ancient Dorset, Jurassic Dorset and farming and rural history. The Victorian Gallery is the museum’s centrepiece, built in 1883 and inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Dorchester Gallery tells the town’s story from prehistoric times to the present day. Changing history and art exhibitions also feature inside and the museum hosts a year round programme of lectures and talks, events and concerts.
The Keep Military Museum
Close to the main High Street in Dorchester is the impressive castellated Keep Military Museum. It was built from Portland stone in 1879 and was designed to resemble a Norman castle. Its purpose was originally as a gatehouse for the Depot Barracks of the Dorsetshire Regiment as well as providing a home for the county armoury. The Keep Military Museum explores the history of Devon and Dorset regiments across 300 years. The exhibits are arranged over three floors and include artefacts, weapons, uniforms and medals. Computer and digital presentations and representations of battlegrounds present stories of courage and sacrifice that soldiers have demonstrated in fighting for their country over hundreds of years.
The Shire Hall – Old Crown Court & Cells
Dorchester’s Old Crown Court and Cells have been the site of several well known trials such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. These were six farm labourers who took a stand against the grinding poverty forced on them by landowners and squires who controlled their work, were consistently lowering wages and raising prices for basic provisions. Together George Loveless, the leader, James Hammett, James Loveless, Thomas Standfield, John Standfield and James Brine formed what was effectively the first trade union "The Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers" in 1832.
The men were subsequently arrested and escorted to the Old Crown Court and Cells in Dorchester where particularly harsh sentences were passed with five of them being transported to New South Wales to work as convict labourers and the leader, George Loveless, sent to Tasmania. You can see a commemorative plague on the court buildings in Dorchester bearing the Martyrs names. Thomas Hardy is said to have used the case of Martha Browne heard at Dorchester’s Old Crown Court & Cells in 1856 as inspiration for Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Browne was the last woman to be publicly hanged for murdering her husband with an axe!
Tutankhamun Exhibition & Terracotta Warriors Museum
The Tutankhamun Exhibition recreates Tutankhamun’s tomb and some of the treasures that were found there. The exhibition gives you a chance to see what the artefacts looked like as many of the originals are kept in Egypt and are not likely to be seen outside that country for fear of damage. Exhibits have been faithfully copied from the originals, so much so that some have been used in television programmes around the world. The Terracotta Warriors Museum displays faithful replicas of the Terracotta soldiers created by China’s first Emperor who also built China’s Great Wall. Exhibits also include the costumes and armour the soldiers would have worn.
Dinosaur Museum & Teddy Bear Museum
The Dinosaur Museum brings Dorset’s Jurassic Coast alive for children. It is totally dedicated to dinosaurs, displaying many dinosaur fossils and life-size reconstructions including a complete dinosaur skeleton. Families will adore The Teddy Bear Museum. Here you can see a collection of all sorts of teddy bears including antique bears, people sized bears and you can visit the shop for Steiff bears, Winnie the Pooh and Paddington.