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Six of the Best Museums to Visit Across Sussex

9th May 2022

Whether you’re a visitor to Sussex, or a resident looking to explore new parts of it, a museum is a great way to discover more about the history and culture of this creative county. From crafts to castles, explore these fascinating Sussex museums...

Museums in Sussex

(1) Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft

Set in the quaint village of Ditchling, just north of the South Downs, the charming Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft is an essential stop on any Sussex arts trail. A former Victorian school house, the building was bought in 1985 by sisters Joanna and Hilary Bourne, who filled it with the work of local artists. Today, the museum is still celebrated for its dedication to local arts and crafts, showcasing work by weaver Ethel Mairet, calligrapher Edward Johnston - creator of the famous Johnston typeface used across the London Underground - and sculptor Rowland Emmett - creator of the infamous creations of Caratacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

In recent years, the museum has undergone a number of architectural changes in order to preserve and enhance the state of the building, and which have subsequently won it a number of prestigious awards including the 2014 RIBA Award for South East Building of the Year and 2013 World Architecture News Award for Adaptive Reuse.

As well the extensive displays, collection store and research room, there is also an established learning space, which hosts the museum’s exciting programme of events, talks and workshops throughout the year. Be sure to stop at the in-house cafe, housed in a converted 18th Century cart lodge, when you’re ready for a cup of tea and slice of cake.

Highlights: New exhibition launching May 26th - Frank Brangwyn: The Skinners' Hall Murals. This is the first time these works by a local artist will have been on public display.


Museums in Sussex

(2) Brighton Toy & Model Museum

Children and adults of all ages will relish in a visit to the Brighton Toy & Model Museum, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Nestled beneath the Victorian arches supporting Brighton Railway Station’s forecourt, the museum has an expansive collection of over 10,000 toys and models from the last century, providing a fascinating glimpse into childhoods of the past. Walk through the foyer, beneath a small scale model of a Spitfire plane and motorised Meccano Ferris wheel to reach the expansive exhibition space beyond.

Soft toys, puppets and dollhouses alongside working trains and old-fashioned penny arcade games are just some of the attractions on offer, a full index of which can be found on the museum’s online Index. Alongside the permanent exhibitions, the museum regularly refreshes its collection with temporary displays on loan from other places, to ensure that no two visits are the same. Be sure to check the Featured Exhibits page as well as the museum’s blog for information on events and latest collections.

Highlights: The intricately detailed rail layout spanning the rear of the museum, designed to provide an authentic insight into 1930’s life in Britain. Keep an eye on the museum’s Facebook page to find out when the trains will be running.


Museums in Sussex

(3) Hastings Fishermen's Museum

Located just off the seafront in Hastings, the Fishermen’s Museum is an intriguing little gem of a place, well-worth a visit for anyone passing through the historic town. It is housed inside the former Church of St Nicholas, a small yet beautiful Grade II listed building, which was taken on by residents in 1956 as a place in which to record the town’s fascinating maritime history.

What the museum lacks in size, it certainly makes up for in substance. In-between the beautiful stained glass windows, floor to ceiling displays of documents and artefacts can be found - from photographs, paintings and letters, to a wide variety of fishermen’s finds. In the centre sits the museum’s star attraction - The Enterprise, an original fishing boat built in 1912, the deck of which is open for visitors to board and explore.

The depth of local history on offer, together with the personal nature of its documentation, mean the museum is one of Hastings’ best loved attractions, welcoming an estimated 140,000 visitors each year. It is open all year round, except Christmas Day, and admission is free, though donations are very welcome.

Highlights: Climb aboard the deck of The Enterprise and see life from a fisherman’s point of view.


Museums in Sussex

(4) The Old Police Cells, Brighton

Deep in the basement of Brighton Town Hall is one of Sussex’s lesser known museums: The Old Police Cells. Journey down the narrow staircase into what was Brighton’s main police station from 1830 to 1967, to uncover the fascinating history of the Sussex police force.

Since its inception in 2005, when then-mayor Pat Drake took it on as her mayoral project, the museum has grown from strength to strength, leading the council to donate more cells to its use. It now occupies the entire cell block, housing a number of compelling exhibits including one of the country’s largest collections of trunchions and tipstaves, together with an authentic 1950’s detective’s office, where you can try your hand at solving a crime.

Considerable effort has gone into preserving the original cells, so much so that the block has been used for many theatre productions and even a film location for the BBC. It is also a favourite with paranormal groups hoping to communicate with Chief Constable Henry Solomon, who in 1844 became the first (and to this date, only) Chief Constable to die at the hands of one of his prisoners! 

Highlights: The Female Cells (cells 2-5) provide a fascinating insight into the history of policewomen in Sussex.


Museums in Sussex

(5) Rye Castle Museum

The museum encompasses two locations: Rye Castle (also known as Ypres Tower) as well as a property on East Street, which has a collection of artefacts on the history of Rye town.

Dating back to the early 14th century, the Ypres Tower has had many functions, from defensive structure to prison, private home and even mortuary; it now serves as a museum containing a number of interesting exhibits. Wandering through the tower’s rooms, you’ll find detailed town maps, locally-made medieval pottery and the wonderful Ypres Tower Embroidery depicting the tower’s many important roles throughout history. From the balcony lookout point, you can enjoy impressive views of Rye Harbour and surrounding area.

A two minute walk from the tower is the East Street museum, which houses a number of exhibits documenting the history of Rye town. Marvel at Rye’s oldest fire engine, discover the once thriving ship-building industry or learn how changes to the coastline over the last thousand years have affected the town. Please note: until Easter, East Street is open only for group bookings, events and talks, while the volunteers have a well-deserved break.

Highlights: The Ypres Tower Medieval Garden and Stillroom, where a range of traditional medieval herbs are grown and preserved.


Museums in Sussex

(6) The Royal Pavilion, Brighton

A living testament to King George IV’s regency dream, from the music room to the private apartments, the Royal Pavilion has been lovingly restored as accurately as possible. Every piece of available evidence was examined, whether original fragments, drawings or prints, and archives to restore and revive its exquisit displays.

It can be viewed by the public on tours of both the rooms and the grounds, plus it's also available for as a wedding venue.

The interior, by modern terms, has become an ode to eclecticism. The bold tones, mix of patterns, and the balance of both continue to be inspiring. It's not just history and amazing interiors that the pavilion has to offer, every year they host fascinating exhibitions. Plus its gardens are annually transformed and make a truly worthwhile visit for all the family.

Highlights: Currently on display is a selection of costumes inspired by Regency history, all created by artist Stephanie Smart using only paper and thread. 


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