Bristol's new museum, the £27 million M Shed, tells a thousand stories from the port city

By Laura Burgess | 20 June 2011
A photo of an illuminated museum on a darkened waterfront at night
© Courtesy Richard Bryant / Arcaidimages.com
New Venue: M Shed, Bristol, opened June 17 2011

Bristol is certainly brimming with creativity and history, with the likes of Banksy, Portishead, Massive Attack and a harbour dating back to the 13th century. Now the people of Bristol have the opportunity to share the cultural elements and experiences of their town with anyone who visits, thanks to the new M Shed Museum.

The locals have nicknamed the £27 million history museum Mashed – inside, objects from Roman times to the present day are all over the place, mixed up without any sense of chronology. It holds an equally impressive and very patriotic collection by the people of Bristol, who worked with organisers to form a collective insight into the city’s rich heritage and diverse communities.

The building itself is impressively housed in a refurbished steel-framed cargo shed from 1951. Outside are four electric cranes – the biggest objects in the museum’s collections and the last out of eight that were originally used in the city’s docks.

A photo of a waterfront museum from the water
M Shed counts rousing surroundings among its charms
© Courtesy James Barke
Split over three floors, in the heart of the docklands, each room consists of a gallery full of pieces and stories about Bristol’s past, split into Places, People and Life.

Places shows how the city has grown over time. A giant map on the floor of the room highlights ten key current spots in the living city. Extraordinarily, visitors can see the Bristol Charter, dated from 1373, and the foundation stone of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, constructed in August 1836 after five years of disputes delayed the opening ceremony.

On the second floor, the People Gallery covers some of the most significant chapters in the city’s history and contemporary life. Visitors will find a section dedicated to Bristol’s role as a trading port and the role it played in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Finding such a political and sensitive topic alongside characters from Bristol’s more comical heritage, such as Aardman animation figures Wallace and Gromit, could feel a bit bizarre. There’s a Pink Technics record deck, used by Massive Attack for their 1980 debut album, Blue Lines, which astonished audiences unable to believe that such a high-quality piece of kit had been spraypainted.

But the layout and positioning, placing festivals and celebrations next to tales of citizens fighting for their rights, works. The final room, Life, is also a personal one, examining how families live, learn, work and socialise together.

The room is full of mementoes, so it feels like walking into a giant family album. One ivory wedding dress was worn by a woman on the day or her marriage in 1881, then summoned from her wardrobe again for the couple’s golden wedding anniversary 50 years later.

At a cost of £27 million, the opening of M Shed has been highly anticipated. There is so much to see, not least in the building’s surroundings, housed in the landmark 1950s transit sheds at Prince's Wharf waterfront.

This is a venue which will teach visitors about unknown aspects of a city. It has a thousand different stories to tell along the way.

  • M Shed, Wapping Road, Princes Wharf, Bristol. Open Tuesday-Friday 10am-5pm (6pm Saturday and Sunday). Admission free.
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