Tuesday, 3 April 2018

A Visit to Being Brunel at SS Great Britain

I've always been fascinated with the SS Great Britain. When I was a little girl growing up in Bristol, the story of its homecoming along the Avon Gorge, after years of abandonment in a remote corner of the Falklands, captivated me. But of course, the return to Bristol only signalled the start of decades of work to bring this incredible ship back to life; like most people, I forgot about the story of the SS Great Britain in the intervening years.

Many years later I came back to live in Bristol and was excited to hear that ship was to be opened to the public again, restored to her former glory and displayed in the very same dry dock where she was built.

Fast-forward another decade and a bit, and a fantastic new addition has been added to this outstanding visitor attraction, a new museum dedicated to the man behind the steamship. "Being Brunel" opened in March 2018, bringing together some fascinating exhibits and personal artefacts that give an insight into the life and legacy of one of the world's most iconic engineers. 

Along with some other local bloggers, I got a sneak peek of the exhibition a few weeks back, as well as the opportunity to revisit an attraction that's become a firm favourite with our family. We make several visits a year and it's always top of our list for things to do when we have visitors to stay - like Brunel's other world-famous creation -the Clifton Suspension Bridge - it's a place that gives me a warm glow of pride that I can call Bristol my home city. 

Allowing you to explore the ship in its entirety, both inside and out, the museum pays tribute to Brunel's amazing mind by showing off the ship in all its former glory, with an interior replicated with both authenticity and humour (you'll find it authentically 'fragranced' and cabins filled with everything from steerage passengers having a brawl to someone else trying to have a quiet moment in the loo. 

The new Being Brunel museum complements the ship with 6 galleries housing a whopping 150 personal artefacts, interactive exhibits, photographs, letters, paintings and much more. You can step inside the Great Western Steamship Company's Dock Office, where Brunel once worked, and enter a fully authentic recreation of his London office too, hung with the regulator clock that Brunel set his watch by. 

More personal items on display include Brunel's cigar case and the 'last cigar', one of the most poignant exhibits that give an insight into the engineer's often stressful and demanding lifestyle. I was interested to read that despite his illustrious career and absolute dedication to engineering (it was quite usual for him to work 20-hour days and to risk his health and - on occasions - even his life for his job) he wasn't immune to feelings of failure and self doubt as you can see from some of the diary excerpts on display. In his 'locked diary' he expresses the fear that his designs are "an impossible dream", showing that even geniuses have off days. 

I also found it interesting to read about his dislike of 'celebrity' culture - although Brunel may have set out to become the leading engineer of his generation, he wasn't always happy to be in the spotlight and admitted in his diary that "I often do the most silly, useless things to appear to advantage before those whom I care nothing about".

I'm always interested to read the personal, human stories behind the icon and Being Brunel really gives you a sense of the man behind that famous photograph everyone thinks of when they picture Brunel. I was interested to learn more about Brunel's early life and family, and about his sister Sophia, also a talented creative, who couldn't, as a woman at the time, follow in her father and brother's footsteps. 

It this all sounds a bit wordy for younger visitors, there's plenty on offer for them too, with interactive exhibits that bring Brunel's story to life in a more child-friendly fashion. Climb aboard the train carriage simulator and see if you can draw a perfect circle, just as Brunel would have done to test the efficiency of his new broad gauge tracks invention.

You can also, quite literally, enter the mind of the man himself and immerse yourself in a multi-sensory film experience that takes you through highlights of Brunel's career - I particularly loved seeing the heart-stopping moment Brunel and a reluctant companion were caught hanging from a precariously suspended basket over the Avon Gorge during the construction of the Suspension Bridge. 

Housed in an eye-catching 8-metre tall bust of Brunel, complete with trademark stovepipe and cigar, it makes a spectacular centrepiece to the museum.

But perhaps what I personally loved most about the collection is that it showcases a real pioneer of the industrial age, a man with an extraordinary hunger for innovation and desire to just make everyday things better. The phrase 'Let Me Try' pops up around the museum, a tribute to a man whose determination to keep going lives on in the bridges, tunnels and transport networks we continue to use today.

With all the other attractions on offer here, including a pleasant cafe and the opportunity for thrill-seekers to climb the rigging and main yard (on selected days at an additional cost for ages 10-plus), there's so much to see at the SS Great Britain. Located at one of Bristol Harbourside's most picturesque corners, overlooking the famous painted houses, I think it encapsulates the spirit of Bristol and offers a great value day out for all ages.

Family tickets cost £45 and include access to the museum, ship and Being Brunel. You can use your tickets for repeat visits throughout the year. For more information, visit the website here.

I visited Being Brunel free of charge as part of a blogging event. All words, thoughts and pictures are my own. 


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