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Museum Week: Six of the best local sites to visit

In celebration of Museum Week, which falls this month and spans the globe, Velvet’s Riadh Falvo takes a tour of six of our area’s must-visit sites, all of them with fascinating stories to tell. . .

National Horseracing Museum, Newmarket

What it is: As one recent reviewer offered, the NHRM is: “Everything you never knew you wanted to know about horseracing, but were afraid to ask.”

What’s inside: My museum guide Stefan Regula agrees and expands: “We are so much more than a museum! There is something for all ages, from classic sporting art to interactive exhibits, including our fantastic racing simulator, plus it’s one of the few places in Newmarket where you can meet retired racehorses up close and personal.”

The racing simulator Stefan is referring to is called The Equicizer, overseen by much-loved semi-retired jockey Frank Conlon who will give you expert pointers on how to stay firmly on your racehorse (hint: bottoms up or “bum in the air”, as it were). The Equicizer is a must-try by all accounts, even though I politely decline. . . on this occasion. I suspect I will not be able to refuse Mr. Conlon’s invitation on my next visit, nor do I want to. It looks like a lot of fun!

When asked for a current favourite of all the exhibits, Stefan points me in the direction of the full-size Frankel statue in the King’s Yard, “particularly impressive, in both scale and craftsmanship. A modern classic!”

I personally love that the NHRM is the flagship site for the Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) charity and its ongoing dedication to the welfare of retired horses is meritorious. From May onward, exhibits of Lucy Kemp-Welch, the illustrator of Black Beauty, and Sir Alfred Munnings will be on display, and we will see the return of Party in the Palace celebrating the completion of Palace House 350 years ago on July 23, not to be missed!

Must attend: Party in the Palace on July 23

Address: Palace Street, Newmarket CB8 8EP

Website: nhrm.co.uk

Entry price: FREE to £15

Opening times: In summer: Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm

Oliver Cromwell's House, Ely

What it is: The much-debated Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell’s former abode in Ely, it’s now home to a completely revamped Civil War Exhibition and a themed escape room (plus it houses the Ely Tourist Information Office).

What’s inside: Interestingly enough Oliver Cromwell’s House celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee earlier this month, and that little bit of irony is not lost on me, nor should it be on you. If you are not aware of the history between Oliver Cromwell and The Crown, this museum is a must-visit for you, as it is for those wanting to have a more intimate look into the man himself.

I’m shown through a solid oakwood doorway into a room lit only with the natural light of an overcast English morning. If you know, you know. Matthew Routledge sits behind a desk I think, somewhat bemusedly, is made from the same ancient oak. It’s not, of course, the house is much older. Within minutes we establish a rapport, and despite not being very fond of Cromwell when I entered, I find myself introduced to a loving father, doting husband, and someone Matthew assures me we would need to have pints with to really get to ‘know the man’ – which is precisely the function of the house.

On the first floor I find myself standing before a public poll organised by the BBC where visitors can choose to drop a musket ball down the barrel of a Parliamentarian OR Royalist pistol to decide whether Cromwell was a Hero or Villain. I cast my vote very firmly. . . in the middle.

Must do: The escape room! Sessions run every Saturday and Sunday, are priced £95 and bookable online

Address: 29 St Mary's Street, Ely CB7 4HF

Website: olivercromwellshouse.co.uk

Entry price: FREE to £15 for a family pass; individual adult £5.60

Opening times: In summer: daily, 10am to 5pm

Moyse’s Hall, Bury St Edmunds

What it is: Overlooking Bury St Edmunds marketplace, as it has done for more than 900 years in numerous incarnations, Moyse’s Hall Museum should itself probably be in a museum. It contains everything from prison paraphernalia and artefacts of witchcraft to a world-renowned collection of clocks.

What’s inside: Just like one of the opening lines in the introduction to its Power of Stories exhibition - “From folklore to fake news, people have told stories for thousands of years” - the building itself can tell many a good tale I have no doubt. The museum is excellently and passionately curated and I was thrilled to catch the last remaining days of the Power of Stories exhibit before it goes on tour and is replaced by Brick Built this month.

Being a writer, it would not be at all an exaggeration to say I am obsessed with stories and the various mediums in which they are told. Every space of the building contains a story or several, whether of an object such as curator Daniel Clarke’s current favourite – an aestal, or 9th century pointer used for reading scripture - or my own, the stories of the local community, of storytellers such as local journalist Tamika Green and H.E. Ross, a Bury poet who pens: “I was a sailor who writes, and now I am a writer who sails.”

“Throughout history, many stories have been suppressed or silenced,” and it was good to see many of the museums I visited, including this one, giving a voice to those stories.

Must see: Brick Built, a new display made entirely out of Lego (thankfully much too grand to get underfoot)

Address: Cornhill, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1DX

Website: moyseshall.org

Entry price: FREE to £19 for a family pass; individual adult £6

Opening times: Mondays to Saturdays 10am to 5pm (last entry 4pm) and Sundays 12noon to 4pm (last entry 3pm)

Food Museum, Stowmarket

What it is: Located in ‘Britain’s breadbasket’, the Food Museum aims “to connect people with where our food comes from and the impact of our choices: past, present and future.”

What’s inside: Situated over 75 acres, the Food Museum boasts everything from charcoal kilns, community allotments (which they kindly opened during lockdown), an orchard, a wetland nature reserve, a flour mill and a new café, opening this month, which will be supplied with fresh produce from the walled garden and seasonal crops from the farm. It is also where the Black Panther Power of Stories Marvel exhibit is relocating from Moyse’s Hall - Dining with Heroes.

Marketing and visitor services manager Chloe Brett greets me in the gift shop wearing classic farm attire and I’m instantly jealous of her wellies, and regretting my outfit-of-the-day choices as we head straight into fields. Luckily for me, it is dry. Not so lucky for the spring crops, but I’m assured that rain is on its way. . .

Formerly known as the Museum for East Anglian Life, the Food Museum was only renamed this year: “Changing our name was a first step rather than a final destination.” Like any working farm, the Food Museum is always changing, something is always growing, and as we are walking Chloe runs me through the many plans and projects they have for the future. She is perhaps most excited about the 18th century watermill currently being restored and opening this summer.

“Visitors will be able to experience and understand the inner workings of a watermill, and to see the role of milling in the process of breadmaking,” she explains. It will be part of a Bread Trail that will follow the art of breadmaking from the field to the museum’s newly installed bread oven!

Must attend: Festival of Beer and Brewing, an invitation to raise a pint to the museum’s 25th anniversary on June 30

Address: Stowmarket, Suffolk, IP14 1DL

Website: foodmuseum.org.uk

Entry price: FREE to £35 for a family pass; individual adult £12

Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am to 5pm (also open on Mondays on Bank Holidays and in the school holidays)

Museum of Cambridge

What it is: Once a 16th century coaching inn and pub, the Museum of Cambridge shares 300 years of stories from and about the people of Cambridge, the city and its surroundings.

What’s inside: I meet up with Alex Smaridge, the museum’s newest community and engagement manager, and am very honoured to be taken on a private tour. It’s always a challenge to choose a “favourite”, but I have to ask, and Alex is quick to provide: “I have so many favourites! One display that I love to look through again and again are the images from our picture archive. In the Dining Room we have a series of pictures that show very familiar views of Cambridge from the early 1900s, which tell just the most beautiful story about what has and hasn’t changed so much in Cambridge. It really is the best place in town to take a step back in time and immerse yourself in the extraordinary stories of the ordinary people of Cambridge and the surrounding villages.”

My personal favourite exhibits are tokens of love woven together with sheaves of wheat and flowers, to be worn only if the offer of love was accepted. No ghosting here - well, aside from the actual ghosts. In 2017 the museum teamed up with Ghost Hunt UK and was advised by a spirit, present during a spirit board session, that there were as many as 50 ghosts associated with the building.

“In early June we can’t wait to showcase the history of Arbury Carnival in Cambridge,” adds Alex. “Starting with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, the carnival is celebrating its 45th anniversary of community fun, activities and events this year with an exhibition at the Museum of Cambridge and the carnival itself in Arbury.”

Must attend: Arbury Carnival, June 11, and its companion exhibition at Museum of Cambridge

Address: 2-3 Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 0AQ

Website: museumofcambridge.org.uk

Entry price: FREE to £7

Opening times: Thursday to Monday, 10am to 5pm; Sundays and Bank Holidays, 11am to 4pm (closed Tuesday, Wednesday)

The Centre for Computing History, Cambridge

What it is: Home to a collection of vintage computers and game consoles, the Centre for Computing History “tells the story of the Information Age through exploring the historical, social and cultural impact of developments in personal computing.”

What’s inside: Not only one of the youngest museums in Cambridgeshire, this is also one of the most interactive. What other museums are you aware of where visitors are not only invited to ‘play’ with the artefacts, but are enthusiastically encouraged to do so? Chief curator Jason Fitzpatrick and the entire team want you to press all of the buttons and do all of the things, but they also have a mission, not unlike Bond in Goldeneye: “There is now a generation growing up who know very little to nothing at all about the world without computers and the internet.”

This technology has shaped our society, transformed the way we perceive ourselves, each other, influenced not only our clothes, but also our votes, and has changed the way we communicate completely – and all of this has taken place in a very short span of time. The Centre for Computing History was set out to track, not unlike the internet is tracking you right now, and tell this story. (Curiously or coincidentally, I am putting together this piece on April 30 and it was on this very day in 1993 that the World Wide Web announced that it was “for everybody”. 29 years ago.)

I could not possibly choose a favourite item or game in the museum, however did you know that one of the first computer calculators or Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), as it was called in the day, was commissioned or invested in by Lyons? The tea company? “Lyons offered funds and provided an engineer to assist Mathematical Physics graduate Maurice Wilkes of Cambridge in his research. It ran its first programme in 1949 - Lyons then adapted it for its own business needs, and built the Lyons Electronic Office (LEO).”

Must visit: Museum Gaming Parties - check the site for dates or to book a private party

Address: Coldhams Road, Rene Court, Cambridge CB1 3EW

Website: computinghistory.org.uk

Entry price: FREE to £26 for a family pass; individual adult £9

Opening times: 10am to 5pm, Saturdays and Sundays only

Photography: Riadh Falvo and Velvet archive

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