St Albans Museum & Gallery: ‘A reason for locals to feel proud’ – review

It’s a bit of an oddball but this free museum brings the city’s Roman and recent past to life in ways kids can enjoy rather than endure

In a nutshell

In the middle of St Albans, one of the UK’s smallest cities, is this unintentionally eccentric new museum, part funded by the local community who helped bring it to life. The building was designed as a grand courthouse and its Georgian splendour has been restored to house a curious range of galleries that chart the most famous and the lesser-known parts of the area’s history (from its origins as Roman Verulamium to its role in the printing industry), alongside modern art and exhibits. Friendly and plentiful staff help bring the building’s past to life, showing visitors round the old cells or whipping up mock trials in the courtroom, which doubles as a cafe.

Fun facts

The Wars of the Roses began in St Albans and saw fighting fill the narrow streets in 1455. One of its protagonists, the Duke of York, is not the Grand Old Duke of York but the man who inspired ROYGBIV mnemonic (“Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain”).

The founder of golf’s Ryder Cup, Samuel Ryder, was an entrepreneur who made his fortune as a merchant and came up with the idea of selling penny packets of seeds from his home in St Albans in the 1890s.

A young girl wearing a plastic pith helmet and holding a magnifying glass looks at artefacts in a glass case.
On closer inspection … some of the museum’s artefacts Photograph: PR

Best thing(s) about it

Being able to stand (and accuse) in the docks seemed the big ticket, though there were plenty of kids trying to identify famous local faces from the pictures lining the stairs, including Boudicca and Stephen Hawking. The St Albans on Demand gallery shows exhibits that change according to local request, which may explain why it currently includes the head and upper body of half a taxidermy lion, otherwise known as Arthur Lion (geddit?) and a 19th-century teacup designed for resting moustaches on.

The viewing corridor that overlooks the higgledy-piggledy 14th-century buildings of French Row is testament to the clever restoration architecture, which is every bit as appealing as the museum’s content. The programme of events, which incorporates calligraphy and virtual-reality workshops, looks like a good way to combine activity and cultural engagement.

Images of famous local faces line the stairs at St Albans Museum.
Wall of fame … images of famous local faces line the stairs Photograph: PR

What about lunch?

Affordable salads and quiches, plus the now-ubiquitous kid’s lunchbox option, are available from around a fiver and can be eaten in the outdoor square patio that opens onto the city’s main shopping thoroughfare or in the courtroom cafe. Evening visitors (for the Museum Lates which will start soon) can order wine, too.

Exit through the gift shop?

The main foyer incorporates a shop selling small mementos and some Roman paraphernalia. Replica soldier’s helmets and museum-branded keyrings might draw their eye but it’s easy to avoid and not pitched cynically at kids.

Getting there

St Albans is 20 minutes from London St Pancras on the Thameslink train, which runs north-south between Bedford and Brighton.

Empty courthouse at St Albans Museum.
Guilty pleasure … mock trials are held in the courtroom Photograph: PR

Value for money?

It’s free, so yes, but you couldn’t spend all day here. Combine it with a visit to the historic cathedral, a five-minute walk away, and the Roman ruins (and another museum) in Verulamium Park – there are ice-cream vans en route if bribery is required.

Opening hours

Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday midday-5pm.


8/10. This accessible take on what could be quite stuffy subjects recognises where kids’ hearts (and attention spans) lie. A reason for locals to feel proud.


Emily Mathieson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Horniman Museum, London: ‘Interactive, intelligent and inspiring’ – review
The new World Gallery raises the bar yet further for this free local institution, brimful of music, nature and dazzling displays from cultures the world over

Gemma Bowes

28, Jun, 2018 @10:11 AM

Article image
Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Dorchester: ‘The youngest prisoner tried here was seven’ – review
This new Dorset museum lifts the lid on injustices handed down at the historic court with interactive guides and some grisly facts

Kari Herbert

07, Aug, 2018 @12:15 PM

Article image
Take the kids to … People’s History Museum, Manchester
A march through Britain’s political and social history may sound heavy-going but clever curation, family trails and interactive exhibits will delight visitors of any age

Jenny Elliott

27, Mar, 2018 @9:30 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Treasures abound at this grand museum that, amid the ancient pots and classic paintings, has plenty to keep kids entertained

Oliver Balch

06, Aug, 2019 @10:43 AM

Article image
National Football Museum: ‘It’s running​​ loads of World Cup-themed events’ – review
Football doesn’t need to come home: it’s already resident in Manchester, where memorabilia and interactive games and exhibits fascinate fans young and old

Gavin McOwan

06, Jul, 2018 @12:07 PM

Article image
Weald & Downland Living Museum, West Sussex: ‘Helps children imagine rural life centuries ago' – review
With its historic cottages, schoolhouse and farms, exploring this interactive family attraction feels like strolling through a real village

Gemma Bowes

24, Aug, 2018 @9:55 AM

Article image
Take the kids to... Telegraph Museum, Porthcurno, Cornwall
Children of the internet age will be gobsmacked to discover this small remote telegraph office was at the forefront of a communications revolution, but the museum tells that story in a fun, fascinating and hands-on way

Kari Herbert

21, Mar, 2017 @12:30 PM

Article image
Take the kids to … Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds
A world-class weaponry and armour collection, from rare swords to an umbrella gun, is on display at this excellent, free family-friendly museum

Phoebe Taplin

12, Apr, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … Wonderlab at the Science Museum, London
This new gallery inside the (otherwise free) museum invites children to become scientists through 50 interactive displays and regular live shows

Isabel Choat

15, Nov, 2016 @1:09 PM

Article image
Take the kids to … The Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset
This rather sceptical mum was surprised by just how much fun – and how absorbing – this collection of armoured vehicles was

Helen Gooding

04, Oct, 2016 @9:43 AM