Oxford is a well known city in the UK and has earned itself the nickname of the City of Dreaming Spires. Most people have heard of Oxford University, which is one of the best known landmarks in the area. Over the years Oxford has been home to a multitude of scholars as well as royalty which is why it has held an important place in the history of the world. Although the territory has been inhabited for thousands of years, the city of Oxford was only established back in the 9th century. If you visit the town today you will see a modern city, although it still has pieces of its past scattered around the streets.
The best way to learn more about somewhere that you are visiting is to stop by some of the local museums. Whether you are in Oxford for business or to sightsee, going to a museum is always a good idea and a great way to spend an afternoon. If you don't want to carry your bags around you can leave them at a suitcase locker in Oxford. After you do that, check out our guide on how to get around Oxford. Then you won't miss a single museum!
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The building that houses the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a stunning example of neo-Gothic architecture and what you will find inside is even more impressive. The museum is decorated with dinosaur skeletons, bugs and butterfly displays we well as the world's last soft-tissue dodo bird. Fun fact; this dodo exhibit is thought to have inspired Lewis Caroll's characters in Alice in Wonderland.
This museum first began as the centre for scientific study for the university. Today it has a total of seven million artifacts from both modern and historic specimens. They have exhibits on fossils, rocks and minerals, different species of insects and animals as well as a working beehive on the top floor where you can watch these amazing creatures at work.
The Ashmolean Museum of Oxford is known around the world and is a famous establishment of art and archaeology. If you want to see some big name art exhibitions then this is the place to go. They change the displays several times per year so you can come back again and again to see something new.
Here you can see artifacts from all around the world, like jewelry once belonging to King Alfred, Egyptian mummies and more. The third floor has fantastic art galleries with works by Lucian Freud, Pablo Picasso and Barbara Hepworth. This museum, which was first founded in 1683, now houses items and artwork from half a million years ago.
Bate Collection of Musical Instruments
If you happen to have an interest in musical instruments, or even if you don't, this Oxford museum is one worth visiting. This museum has almost any and every sort of instrument that you can think of, and probably some that you didn't even know existed. You will find the exhibits displayed in Oxford University's Faculty of Music.
Many of the instruments shown in the museum date back hundreds of years and some are even from the Middle Ages or later. There are over 2,000 unique items in this collection and you can see everything from the harpsichord that was previously owned by Handel to a Javanese gamelan. There is even a plunger that has been turned into a clarinet!
Modern Art Oxford
Art enthusiasts should head straight to Modern Art Oxford, one of the city's best art galleries. They host regular exhibitions and many of them involve works by big name artists that are known around the world. In the past, this place was called the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, but now it is more of a gallery than a museum.
Although the area is quite small there is still lots to see. This gallery has been performing art exhibits since 1966, and since then it has been pivotal in exposing the locals of Oxford to modern and contemporary art.
Pitt Rivers Museum
There are more than half of a million historical objects and artifacts housed in Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum. Many of the displays focus on ethnography and anthropology, and it is a pretty interesting place to spend an afternoon. In these exhibits, you can see all sorts of things coming from around the world and throughout all of history.
It can be a bit overwhelming at first since the museum is packed full of artifacts, but once you take your time to see each object individually it is really worth the visit. The museum has three floors with the displays categorized by item and not by place. This can be interesting as you can compare things from around the world to see the differences and similarities between cultures. Some of the exhibits show things like Inuit Parkas, Japanese Masks, Pottery from Africa, Tahitian mourning clothes and so much more.
Christ Church Picture Gallery
The Christ Church Cathedral is a famous landmark in Oxford and you might even recognize the building if you are a Harry Potter fan, since some of the movie scenes were filmed here. In the back of the church is where you will find the picture gallery, which showcases works by the Old Masters of the Oxford University.
This gallery first began in the 18th century when General John Guise gifted the school nearly 200 unique artworks. His goal was to help give students at the university access to art without having to travel abroad, and today the collection has over 300 masterpieces and around 2,000 drawings.
The Story Museum
Try this museum as entertainment for the family. The Story Museum is one of the best of Oxford's museums, especially if you are traveling with kids. Come admire the power of stories and walk through exhibits that will make you feel like you are in a storybook at the Story Museum of Oxford. It is a great way to connect to books that you knew from your childhood or to fall in love with new ones.
Take a walk into Narnia through the wardrobe, get a hint into what inspired the creations of hobbits or mad hatters and lots more. Many of the exhibits are interactive as well and are sure to give everyone who visits an unforgettable experience. You can also participate in workshops or attend talks and performances.
The History of Science Museum
This museum in Oxford is an interesting combination of both history and science. This establishment is another of the museums owned by Oxford University and it is housed in the same building where the Ashmolean Museum used to be. Come here to learn all about the creation and use of different scientific tools.
It was first founded in 1924 with the purpose of preserving old scientific instruments and the first ones in the collection belonged to Lewis Evans. Today it has one of the biggest collections in all of Europe and the displays that they offer can teach you all about the elaborate tools and how they have changed the way that science works today. Some of the objects that you will see include sundials, Einstein's blackboard, beautiful astrolabes, the original cultures of penicillin and much more.
The Museum of Oxford
What better way to learn about the city than to visit its very own dedicated museum? The Museum of Oxford follows the history of the city itself and is located in the Town Hall. Come here to learn interesting facts about the area that you are traveling in as well as Oxford's people. The exhibits tell the story of Oxford both in the past and present day.
This is definitely somewhere that you should visit while you are in town and you might even discover something new. For example, did you know that the Christ Church was actually constructed on top of what was once an old priory dedicated to St Frideswide, Oxford's patron saint? Also, the city was put under siege a total of three times during the Civil War, mainly because it was, at the time, the seat of parliament for King Charles I.
Weston Library and Bodleian Library
The Weston Library, as well as the Bodleian Library, are quite impressive institutions and together they house permanent exhibitions with some of the finest artifacts in the city. They were founded by Sir Thomas Bodley and together they are one of England's three separate deposit libraries. If you find yourself nearby while you are in Oxford you should stop in for a visit.
As deposit libraries, these buildings have a copy of every single book ever published since their founding in the year 1602, plus many that were written before then. Today they have gained a big enough collection to earn them the title of the UK's biggest academic library system. Their shelves contain books on nearly every subject in the world.
Are There Any Cheap Museums in Oxford?
Christ Church Picture Gallery
Isn't it wonderful to find free activities? Most of Oxford's museums are free and those that aren't are still affordable. The Christ Church Picture Gallery is not free but it is cheap, in fact, entry is only about £6 for adults and £3 for concessions.
The History of Science Museum
The Museum of History of Science actually offers free entrance to all visitors, so feel free to stop by and see historic science artifacts, like the blackboard Einstein used, anytime! However, they do ask for a suggested donation of around £5.
Bate Collection of Musical Instruments
The Bate Collection of Musical Instruments is another one that does not ask you to pay to get in, although they do ask for a small donation. Either way, this is a cheap museum and an affordable way to spend an afternoon.
The Ideal Way to See the City
Museums bring people together, both on a local and international level. One of Oxford's highlights is its museums and art galleries, and both locals as well as visiting researchers or guests can benefit from the exhibitions that they offer. Some of the establishments even put on events and workshops that can be really worth attending, and since many of them have free entry you have nothing to lose!