Rosie Clarke’s top 14 unusual museum events

© Essex Police Museum - Make a police horse

© James Reader - One of the crew of volunteers at the Watch Museum Coventry

© Tourism Division, Great Yarmouth Borough Council - Wind Energy Museum

© Dorich House Museum - Gallery

As coordinator of the annual Museums at Night festival I’m fascinated by unusual aspects of our heritage, and particularly in the ways that museums bring their collections to life.

When the Heritage Open Days team asked me to pick my Top Ten museum events from the veritable smorgasbord on offer, it was a real challenge - so here are 14 unusual highlights you might enjoy discovering over the 2013 Heritage Open Days weekend.

Toys, trains, ponies and cake

The magnificently named Tumblydown Farm in Redruth is home to the Moseley Vintage Toys, Trains and Mines Museum, with exhibits ranging from a full-size road locomotive in steam to Meccano models and narrow-gauge mine train rides, as well as horses and ponies outside. It also mentions homemade cakes…

Make your own horse

Essex Police Museum invites curious visitors to try on uniforms (always good fun), become a detective, get fingerprinted and make a police horse from craft materials.

Up the Mysterious Stairs

Calling budding Nancy Drews, Famous Fives and Secret Sevens – this is a chance to go up the Mysterious Stairs! The striking 17th century Oak House Museum in West Bromwich never usually allows visitors to head up to the top floor – what will you find?

The (muddy) Good Life

At the Museum of Farnham, a Georgian building on a site continuously occupied since the 12th century, they’re taking a leaf out of William Cobbett’s book ‘Cottage Economy’. Learn about bee-keeping, basket-weaving and mead-making, construct a bird-feeder and get messy building with wattle and daub.

Party through the past

Blandford Fashion Museum is based in a beautiful Dorset Townhouse, built by unusually-named brothers in 1760. Discover the history of dress patterns and parties through time, from an Edwardian tea party to a 30s children’s party and a fabulous 50s cocktail party.

Where clockwork meets the paranormal

Coventry Watch Museum, based in 19th century cottages, has numerous watches on show: the clue is in their name. They also hold fascinating artefacts from World War II (including an air raid shelter), and invite visitors to take a test of dexterity, try their hand at the tombola, and – oh yes - take part in paranormal investigations.

Print a keepsake

This is your last chance to see behind the scenes of Oxford’s former GPO building before its redevelopment. Visit the Bodleian Print Workshop at the Story Museum and print a special keepsake on one of their antique presses.

A touch of style

Dorich House Museum is a glamorous 1930s Art Deco house sure to delight lovers of art and architecture: it’s filled with Dora Gordine’s sculptures and Richard Hare’s collection of Russian art.

Social history comes to life

The Belford and District Hidden History Museum will be appreciated by everyone who enjoyed Lark Rise to Candleford. Hear tales of the Mail Coach, visiting suffragettes, the role of the local Manor, the coming of the railway and the tragic death by lightning of Virtue Moffatt.

If you’ve been watching social history drama The Mill, the Framework Knitters Museum interprets the poor living and working conditions which gave rise to the Luddite revolt. But it’s not all tragic: see a framework knitting machine in action, discover lacemaking and make a souvenir to take home on a circular knitting machine.

If you’re interested in women’s history, Bedford’s Panacea Museum holds artefacts from the life of English prophetess and cult founder Joanna Southcott, including her Box of Sealed Writings, as well as information about the fascinating Panacea Society and healing ministry founded by women following her teachings.

I never knew there was a museum of that!

The Pinchbeck Engine Land Drainage Museum, housed in an 1833 steam-powered pumping station, might seem unlikely. However, it explains the history of drainage in this area from Roman times to the present day – without which this part of Lincolnshire would have been uninhabitable! 

The Victorian technology on show at Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History is held in the unusual location of the only complete town gasworks in England and Wales. Their event promises “domestic nostalgia with a range of domestic appliances powered by gas”.

Another engineering highlight is the Morse Collection at the Wind Energy Museum. No flatulence jokes here: discover the Heath Robinson-style ingenuity behind the working windpumps and scoopwheels that shaped the Norfolk landscape.

The next Museums at Night festival of after-hours excitement in UK arts and heritage venues runs from Thursday 15 – Saturday 17 May 2014. Rosie Clarke edits the Museums at Night behind-the-scenes blog and can also be found on Twitter as @MuseumsAtNight

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