Norfolk boasts over 50 museum and historic sites, welcoming visitors and explaining the county’s unique and fascinating heritage. We’ve chosen our top 10, including Norwich Castle, Time & Tide, Museum of Norwich and Ancient House.
In recent years Norfolk has yielded prehistoric discoveries so important they have re-written history. Finds include the Holme Timber Circle, otherwise known as Seahenge (4,000 years old); Europe’s most important Neanderthal site in the Brecks (60,000 years old); the oldest hand-axe found in North West Europe (550,000 years old) and the West Runton Mammoth (over 600,000 years old).
Oh, and the oldest evidence of mankind found outside the Great Rift Valley in Africa… 850,000-year-old footprints from the first tourists ever to visit Great Britain.
Until the Industrial Revolution, Norfolk was one of the most densely populated counties in the UK. Renowned for growing wheat and producing wool, the county has been invaded and occupied in turn by the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. And then a Friendly Invasion – the Americans during the second world war.
The result is that Norfolk is strewn with archaeology, producing, on average, 30% of the UK’s treasure finds each year and furnishing its museums with a wealth of fascinating objects.
For up-to-date information on all the museums, including opening times, latest events and exhibitions and Covid-19 measures check the website: www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk
Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery
One of the city’s most famous landmarks, Norwich Castle was built by the Normans as a royal palace over 900 years ago.
Norwich Castle is currently undergoing a major transformation through the Royal Palace Reborn project. With major support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, this project will restore the Castle’s mighty Norman Keep to its original Norman layout so visitors can experience the Castle as it was in its royal heyday. Find out more about the Royal Palace Reborn.
Until the project is completed in 2023, the medieval areas of the Castle site, including the Keep, dungeons and battlements, will be closed to the public.
Visitors can still enjoy thousands of treasures housed in the galleries of the City’s former Victorian prison – now home to collections of national and international importance.
Go wild in the Natural History galleries and discover creatures from all over the world. Learn about Victorian collectors, taxidermy, geology, fossils, birds, botany and butterflies.
Explore the world of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, and marvel at finds from Ancient Egypt in a special display. Follow the story of the Norfolk Regiment and the men who served around the world, through 300 years of soldiers’ stories. In the Art Galleries, there are superb displays of fine and decorative arts, including the best collections anywhere of paintings by the Norwich School of Artists, Lowestoft Porcelain and ceramic teapots. A delightful Decorative Arts Gallery traces 600 years of style and design. Changing exhibitions bring world class art into the heart of Norwich.
Family events at weekends and during the school holidays bring the collections alive for younger audiences.
Museum of Norwich at The Bridewell
The Bridewell has a fascinating history. It has been home to the first mayor of Norwich, a prison, a tobacco warehouse and a shoe factory. Now it’s a wonderful museum of Norwich life.
At the heart of the museum are the stories of Norwich people. Sometimes ordinary and sometimes extraordinary, they all helped to create the modern city.
There’s flamboyant hatmaker Rumsey Wells, diarist Parson Woodforde, designer Thomas Jeckyll, as well as local girl Ethel George and Bridewell inmate Jane Sellers.
Listen to tales from the factory floor as workers help to bring the city’s history to life, from its pioneering days to its more recent past.
The museum is packed with historic objects. Some are wonderfully weird – like the world’s first machine for knitting wire netting, a chocolate enrobing machine and a head measuring device for the most expensive caps in the world.
Others are technologically brilliant such as Colman’s steam fire engine, a restored jacquard loom, world class Norwich shawls and over 200 locally made shoes.
Superb reconstructions take you back in time. Browse the archives in the 18th century coffee house, peek into the charming second world war house and be amazed by the antique jars and equipment in the amazing pharmacy.
Strangers’ Hall is one of the most intriguing and atmospheric buildings in Norwich. Dating back to 1320, it has been home to wealthy merchants and mayors who made medieval Norwich a great city.
Wander through the period room settings, showing how furniture and furnishing design has changed over the centuries. Marvel at the Tudor great hall, the elegant Georgian dining room and the magnificent stone-vaulted Undercroft.
Admire the Regency music room and the charming toy room with its doll’s houses, rocking horse, toy soldiers and Noah’s Ark. Discover the replica
Norwich textiles, interwoven into the displays, which tell the story of the Norwich ‘Strangers’ and how they transformed the city’s weaving industry.
Then rest awhile in the award-winning 17th century style knot garden, with its old-fashioned rose bed and medicinal plants and herbs.
Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse
Combining a historic workhouse, museum and traditional farm, Gressenhall is the perfect place for a day out – whatever the weather.
In the museum galleries, find out about the tools and trades of Norfolk people and the work of the Women’s Land Army. The Victorian workhouse buildings bring to life the grim reality of daily life for the poor who lived there. Discover the drudgery of daily life, the food, the work and punishments for minor misdemeanours – a dark, forgotten history.
Take a short walk to the farm to see the Suffolk Punch heavy horse, rare East Anglian breeds of sheep and cattle and lots of piglets. It’s a real working farm so you can experience a different aspect of rural life with each change of season.
Enjoy the fresh air on a cart ride round the farm or a walk along the river. See a re-creation of a 1930s cottage and wander through the delightful kitchen garden and traditional orchard. Browse around old village shops, stocked with household goods from times gone by.
Special events are held throughout the year – like the Village at War and Apple Day plus family activities at weekends and during the school holidays. Kids will also love the thrilling woodland adventure playground – completely refurbished and updated in 2020 and offering a world of tree houses, walkways and adventure.
It’s easy to imagine what it was like to live in Cromer at the end of the 19th Century, when you step inside this cosy Victorian fisherman’s cottage.
In the Old Cromer Gallery you can learn about Cromer’s history as a Victorian seaside resort, with its fine hotels and scandalous mixed bathing; the lost village of Shipden and Cromer’s coal ships.
There’s an amazing collection of fossils in the Geology Gallery – all found along Norfolk’s Deep History Coast. Fascinating displays reveal why Cromer is renowned as a geological area of international importance. Find out about the amazing discovery of the famous West Runton Mammoth , Britain’s oldest and most complete mammoth fossil. Marvel at a cast of the skull of a Mosasaur – a huge marine reptile common in the seas that covered Norfolk over 80 million years ago.
A beautiful series of portrait photographs of North Norfolk fishermen includes a selection of autochromes – rare early 20th century colour photographs, taken by Olive Edis, Norfolk’s pioneering female photographer.
Cromer Museum organises a wonderful programme of events throughout the year including guided walks led by specialists, children’s workshops and events for adults.
The Ancient House Museum of Thetford Life
The museum is set in a handsome Tudor house – a rare survivor from the period. The atmospheric hall has beautiful carved ceiling timbers and a stunning decorative fireplace.
As you wander through the historic rooms you can discover the remarkable story of Thetford and the surrounding Breckland countryside – ‘the Brecks’. Rich collections span the centuries from pre-history to the 1960s and there are amazing replicas of the Thetford treasure.
Film, audio guides and animation bring you in touch with local people from Thetford’s past from the famous revolutionary philosopher, Thomas Paine, Sikh hero Maharajah Duleep Singh (whose son Frederick gave the museum to the town) to rabbit warreners and railway workers.
Children can dress up in Tudor and Victorian clothing and there’s a charming Tudor knot garden outside where you can enjoy a breather on a warm day.
The museum organises a lively events programme throughout the year including themed days with costumed characters, children’s workshops, museum clubs, talks and events for adults.
The stunning centrepiece of the museum is a life size recreation of Seahenge. This astonishing Bronze Age timber circle was discovered on a West Norfolk beach and you can see the actual timbers on display.
Find out how this ancient wooden structure amazingly survived for 4,000 years. Look closely and you’ll even see the marks made by the bronze axes of the people who meticulously crafted the timbers.
The ‘West Norfolk Story’ takes you on a fascinating journey through the history of the area. Marvel at gold coins concealed inside a cow bone since Roman times. Imagine being a pilgrim in the thriving medieval port of King’s Lynn or riding on a magnificent Victorian merry-go-round. Examine scrimshaw carvings made by sailors and Ancient Egyptian Shabti figures.
More displays explore themes including Invaders and Settlers, Rich and Poor, Maritime Heritage and Town and Country Life.
With thousands of fascinating objects, interactive displays and audio guides, there’s plenty to keep the whole family entertained.
Lynn Museum organises lively family event days throughout the year on themes such as Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, Ancient Egyptians and Victorians.
Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life
Set in one of the UK’s best preserved Victorian herring curing works, Time and Tide traces Great Yarmouth’s history from its Ice Age origins to the present day. Learn about the town’s rich maritime heritage and its development as a popular seaside resort.
Wander through an atmospheric re-creation of a typical 1913 ‘Row’ and see inside the homes of a local fisherman and his neighbours. A re-created 1950s fish wharf takes you back to the heady days when the quay was buzzing with fishermen and herring girls.
You can take the wheel of a steam drifter and learn about some of the colourful characters who made their living from the sea through gripping tales of wreck and rescue.
The smokehouses offer a fascinating insight into the original use of the building. As you explore, you’ll become aware of the lingering aroma of smoked herring – a vivid reminder of times gone by.
Enjoy archive film shows, hands on displays and interactive games. Take an audio guide to help you delve deeper into the town’s history.
The courtyard has a canopy of sails, a play boat for children and a real boat for everyone to investigate.
Time and Tide has events on offer throughout the year including talks and children’s workshops. There are family activities at weekends and during the school holidays.
The Tolhouse Museum
This historic building is one of the UK’s oldest gaols and dates back to the 12th century. You can still see the original cells and get a sense of what it must have been like to be imprisoned there. There’s also an interesting re-creation of a modern prison cell so you can see how prison life has changed.
As you explore the displays you’ll discover the fate of the thieves, smugglers, witches, pirates and murderers who were confined in the Tolhouse. A free audio guide brings the past to life as the gaoler and his prisoners describe their experiences.
The Tolhouse is only open at certain times during the school holidays.
The Elizabethan House Museum
This handsome 16th century home offers a glimpse into the lives of the families who lived there, from Tudor through to Victorian times. A wander through the rooms gives you a real feel for day-to-day domestic life. There are rich period settings and evocative sounds and smells – especially in the kitchen.
In the Conspiracy Room, find out about a fascinating period in Great Yarmouth’s history when the town sided with Cromwell and the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War. Cromwell visited the house on several occasions and led a successful attack on Royalist Lowestoft, aided by Yarmouth volunteers. The room displays capture life in Civil War Yarmouth and a highlight is the marvellous Haddiscoe Hoard of over 300 silver coins.
There are clothes to dress up in and children will enjoy the toy room which is packed with things to do. Outside, there is a pretty little garden where you can relax and take the air.
There are family events and activities on offer during school holidays.