Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery is a local authority-run museum located in Maidstone, Kent, England, featuring internationally important collections including fine art, natural history, and human history. This museum contains over 600,000 artefacts and specimens. Its collections, housed in the centre of Kent’s county town, are among the most comprehensive in the South East. The Museum is one of three operated by Maidstone Borough Council - alongside the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regimental Museum and the Tyrwhitt-Drake Museum of Carriages.
Since the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in February 1923 by Howard Carter and George Herbert, a fascination with the mystery of ancient Egypt has gripped generations. At Maidstone Museum, they house a number of artefacts from this most fascinating of eras. The Egyptian collection of almost 600 objects is the largest in Kent, and explores ancient Egyptian culture with an emphasis on their obsession with death. The types of objects include amulets, canopic jars, coffins, coins, flints, glass vessels, jewellery, mummified animal and human remains, pottery, scarabs, shabtis, stelae (stone), textiles, and wooden figures. It also includes surplus material from British excavations in Egypt, with small donations from travellers who had purchased the objects from antiquities dealers, and collectors of curiosities. Undoubtedly the star of Maidstone Museum’s Egyptian collection is the only human mummy in Kent, ‘The Lady of the House, Ta-Kesh, Daughter of Osiris, Pa-Muta; her mother Lady of the House, Shy’. She was 14 years old when she died c.700-650BC (25th or 26th Dynasty). Her 2,700-year-old mummy was brought to England in the 1820s. This would have had an inner and outer coffin, but only the inner wooden coffin reached the museum in the 19th century. In 1843, she was unwrapped and studied by Samuel Birch of the British Museum, and a local doctor, Hugh Welch Diamond. She was then presented to Mr Charles by his cousin, Dr Diamond, and entered the private Charles Museum in Maidstone.
Maidstone Museum’s British Archaeology collection – the largest in Kent – comprises approximately 11,000 artefacts of major local, regional, and national importance, representative of every period from Prehistoric to Medieval eras. Of particular acclaim are the Anglo-Saxon items, part of Kent Archaeological Society. Among the finest in the country, and featuring grave goods from important cemeteries at Bifrons, Lyminge, and Sarre, the collection is demonstrative of the high quality of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship. Other highlights of the archaeological collection include archives and artefacts from the Benjamin Harrison Collection of Eoliths, a proponent of Eolith theory in Britain and an age believed to pre-date the old Stone Age (Paleolithic). The Boughton Malherbe Bronze Age Hoard, meanwhile, represents the third largest Bronze Age hoard ever found in Britain, dating to c950-800 BC. More locally, stone tools and other evidence tell us that our ancestors were living in the Maidstone area over 400,000 years ago. Their Kent-wide collections of archaeological material are outstanding, ranging from beautifully fashioned flint tools and fabulous Bronze Age weapons, to exquisite Roman glass and rare Anglo-Saxon jewellery. In the Roman period, the Maidstone area featured many villas and farmsteads. Several villas, cemeteries, roadside burials, and coin hoards have been found, indicating that Roman Maidstone was an important trade centre. The foreign archaeology collections number around 870 items and represent Aegean (including Greek) and Gandhara specimens, as well as the Egyptian Collection.
Maidstone Museum’s ‘Dressing Rooms’ – or Costume Gallery – shows a chronological progression of the changing shape of women’s dress from 1800 to 2000. The display incorporates underwear, accessories, children’s garments, and doll’s clothes from each decade, all complemented by paintings and photographs from the collections. As you walk through the gallery, you are able to appreciate both the changing shape of women’s dress and the cyclical nature of fashion. Discover the Grecian-inspired empire line of the early 1800s, and admire the body-covering fashions and the crinoline skirts of the Victorian era. As we leave behind the 19th century and enter the 20th, hems rise then fall again through the succeeding decades. Women’s figures become moulded with restrictive foundation garments and corsets reappear in the mid-20th century. As society’s attitudes change to dress, so the clothing on show reflects the freedom of choice (and movement) that women are able to make. Don’t miss the pregnancy corset, Victorian wedding dress, and liquorice allsorts dress.
The costume and textile collection consists of approximately 7,800 items. Collecting started in the 1950s, and originally consisted of some good examples of 17th and 18th -century costume and textiles, together with a good basic collection of several hundred 19th-century costume items and accessories. During the 1970s, a conscious effort was made to develop the collections in the field of 20th-century fashion and, at that time, Maidstone became one of the first provincial museums to specialise in contemporary costume collection. This in turn led to the acquisition of two large collections of couturier and designer garments, including pieces of Hartnell, Givenchy, Dior, Jean Patou, and Balenciaga. The collection was further enhanced by the donations of the entire wardrobe of Doreen, Lady Brabourne, consisting of 1,500 items dating from the 1930s to the 1970s. The ‘High Street’ end of the fashion market has also been comprehensively collected, often by local purchases. In connection with the Carriage Museum collections, a small group of coachmen and footmen’s liveries is held and has recently been enlarged by the rare transfer of a group of similar material from the Victoria & Albert Museum. The museum also holds costume accessories, including headwear, shoes, and bags and, to a lesser extent, male and children’s costume and accessories. The needlework collections are varied and contain a number of outstanding early pieces and 20th-century embroidered maps and samplers, primarily from the large Ellis Collection.
Cultural material from around the world is represented in their internationally important ethnography collection of more than 4,000 items, the majority form the Brenchley Collection, with particular emphasis upon the cultures of the Pacific (Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Australia, New Zealand), Melanesia, the Pacific North West of Canada and the U.S.A., and the Alaskan Eskimo. This material, including the beautiful Solomon Island canoe, was collected during the travels of Julius Brenchley, a Victorian Gentleman Explorer and local collector who left Maidstone in 1845 to travel the world. Most of the next 28 years were spent abroad building the fabulous collections which he bequeathed to the museum in 1873. The rest of the Brenchley Collection is held by the British Museum. Other material in the museums’ ethnographic collection originates from Africa, Asia, and Brazil, and includes collections from: Olive Temple (later Macleod): a female explorer and collector in early 20th-century Northern Nigeria, with stories of her travels published in the London Magazine; Cecil Ireland Blackburne: a game hunter and collector who published two books in 1913/14, ‘My African Travels’ and ‘From Oriental to Occidental Africa’; Walter Pitt: a District Commissioner for Ashanti (West African Coast) in the 1920s-30s whose collection includes some significant Boafo Shrine figures and Major Frederic Newnham: lived in South Africa and took an expedition to Victoria falls in 1895. Part of his collection is also held at the British Museum
Maidstone Museum’s collections from the Japanese Edo (1600-1868) and Meiji periods (1867-1912) are exceptional in their size, quality, and importance. Among the very best of all public-ownership collections in the South East, and praised as internationally significant, their collections rival those of the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum. Containing almost 4,000 artefacts, making it the third largest Japanese collection in the UK, the collection tells the story of how Japan lived in isolation during the Edo period and how quickly it changed when the country opened up to foreign influence in the Meiji period. The collection was primarily amassed by two local collectors and donors: Walter Samuel (1882-1948): the eldest son of Marcus Samuel, Lord Bearsted of Mote House, Maidstone, and founder of Shell. Walter Samuel amassed his collection from 1905-1923. This collection includes 390 sword fittings such as tsuba (sword guards), 250 inro (portable medicine boxes), netsuke (toggles for inro), 150 lacquer containers and furniture, and bronzes. The jewel of Samuel’s collection is undoubtedly the 620 Ukiyoe woodblock prints by famous Edo period woodblock print masters. These include Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ and ‘Red Fuji’, and a complete set of Hiroshige’s ‘Hoeido Tokaido Way’ series. We also have over 80 related woodblock printed books. The Samuel Collection was presented through The National Art Fund in 1923. Henry Marsham (1845-1908): the son of the third Earl of Romney, Marsham was a retired army officer turned businessman who lived in Weavering House, Maidstone. He settled in Japan in 1905, sending a wide-ranging collection of everyday domestic Japanese pottery and tea ceremony ware, together with some fine non-export porcelain, back to Maidstone Museum. Marsham’s collection of around 700 ceramics was bequeathed to the museum in 1908.
The art of the Edo period is unique due to the self-imposed isolation of the nation under the Tokugawa dynasty’s military rule. The style is uninfluenced and remote from the fashions, scientific discoveries, and industrial developments of the West. Maidstone’s artefacts are primary sources in representing this isolation. The violent end of the Edo period in Japan saw an internal reaction against traditional arts, many never recovering their original form or quality; thus the collection encapsulates a lost triumphant period of Japanese Art. Alongside the importance of the objects in their own right, the collection reflects the prevailing European collectors’ taste and presents a unique ‘time-capsule’ in the history of collecting Japanese art, making the collection a primary resource demonstrating Victorian collecting of Japanese material culture. The Japanese ceramic collection of over 1,000 objects contains many rare and high-quality examples. It is particularly strong in domestic ware made for the Japanese market, including Kyoto ceramics. It epitomises Japanese taste, far from the type of over-decorated export wares which were popular with Western collectors of that period and now represented in other museums. Makers and wares represented include Iwakurayama, Tozan, Ninsei, Arita, Imari, Satsuma, Kakiemon, Rokubei, and Seto. Woodblock prints. Approximately 700 Ukiyo-e woodblock prints include very fine female beauties by Utamaro and Gekko, iconic landscapes by Hiroshige and Hokusai, exceptionally rare actor prints by Kuniyoshi and Sharaku and early prints by Harunobu and Moronobu. Japanese works on paper include 84 printed books, five Edo period maps, and 31 scroll paintings/calligraphy (Kakemono).
Lacquer and metalwork. The lacquer collection contains 105 top-class inro (personal medicine/seal pouches), along with traditional lacquered writing boxes and well-decorated items of domestic furniture. A budai (lacquer writing table) and matching suzuribako (inkstone box), and pieces by the Kajikawa Family are of particular note. Other fascinating parts of the collection include the 152 netsukes (miniature carvings in wood and ivory), many representing subjects from Japanese mythology, daily life, animals, and other scenes from nature. The collection of metalwork includes excellent Japanese swords and finely decorated sword fittings (tsuba, kozuka, kogai, and fuchi-kashira). In addition, there are a number of exceptional Meiji-period decorative bronzes and cloisonné enamels of outstandingly fine work. The artefacts are supported by a large library of works on Japan, early photographs, texts and correspondence. The collection also contains rare consignment boxes in which the Marsham items were packed and transported from Japan, which give invaluable contextual information. The collection is a superb and irreplaceable resource for academic researchers, artists, designers and craftspeople, with high-quality workmanship representing the most significant artisans and craftsmen of the period. It has an important place in the history of British art as well as non-Western art: Western makers have continually derived inspiration from Japan since the 1870s, when the ‘Japonisme’ movement inspired paintings, fashion, and interior decoration.
The remains of some incredible creatures that lived and died in Kent over the last 145 million years are on show in the Earth Heritage Gallery. This fascinating collection also explains how local sedimentary rocks such as Weald Clay and Kentish Ragstone were formed and how the local scenery was transformed over and over again. Their collection of rocks and minerals is comprehensive, and the superb fossil collection reflects the importance of Maidstone to the history of palaeontology (the study of fossils). It’s a little-known fact that Maidstone has the only coat of arms in the world to feature a dinosaur, and these unique arms commemorate the pioneering work of two 19th-century amateur scientists - Gideon Mantell and William Benstead. In 1822, Gideon Mantell, a Sussex doctor passionately interested in the study of fossils, discovered the Iguanodon species based on only specimens of fossilised teeth. In 1834, however, he was alerted to a find of a much larger fossil. Found in a quarry near Queen’s Road, Maidstone, it was obviously the remains of a very large animal. The quarry’s owner, William Benstead, was also fascinated by fossils and excavated the fossil himself, recording his work with notes and sketches. Benstead’s find was widely reported and he wrote to Mantell inviting him to view the fossil. Mantell recognised it as an Iguanodon, and the world’s first articulated bird-hip dinosaur specimen, and purchased it for £25. Mantell’s attempts to reconstruct the skeleton and life of the Iguanodon mark the beginning of palaeontology. At the time of his death in 1850 he was credited with discovering four of the five genera of dinosaurs then known. The Maidstone fossil is currently displayed at the Natural History Museum in London, but Benstead’s notebook with his reconstructions of the Iguanodon, and a cast of the fossil, are highlights of the museum’s palaeontology collection. The main strengths of the palaeontology collection are the marine Cretaceous and Tertiary of Kent, especially Chalk, Lower Greensand, and Lenham Beds, but also Gault and London Clay. There is an extensive collection of Pleistocene vertebrate material and fossils from the Kent Coalfield, and we have collections representing British palaeontology from Cambrian onwards and some international material. Rocks (46,000) and minerals (7,000) are represented on a worldwide scale, and we possess one of the finest mineral collections in the country outside the national museums.
The local history and social history collections at Maidstone Museum document the history and people of the area at the centre of the Garden of England, and include local industries, photography, printed ephemera and numismatics. Stone tools and other evidence tell us that our ancestors were living in the Maidstone area over 400,000 years ago. Significant finds from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and later Roman and Saxon periods (within our archaeological collections) provide tantalising glimpses of what life must have been like for local people. Written records do not exist much before the Medieval period when the Archbishop’s Palace overlooking the Medway became the focus of a small settlement. But in 1549, Maidstone was recognised as a town when it was granted a royal charter. Famous incidents in its history include the Wyatt Rebellion and Battle of Maidstone in the English Civil War (1648). By the 18th century, Maidstone was the official and legal centre of Kent. It was also a successful industrial town with major brewing and papermaking industries. In the 21st century, Maidstone is still expanding as a retail and entertainment centre. Maidstone Museum holds in excess of 15,000 specimens or artefacts which come within the field of social history, and particularly strong domestic themes include housing, heating and lighting, cleaning and maintenance, food and drink, toys and games, textile crafts, music, broadcast and pre-recorded entertainment, writing equipment, and smoking. The museum also holds a fairly large collection of material of major local importance, documenting the everyday life of the borough, local events, and celebrities. Collections relating to local industries include brewing and hop picking (Fremlin, Style & Winch, Mason & Co); papermaking (Whatman); confectionary and food production (Sharps & Foster Clark); engineering (Tilling-Stevens); and agricultural equipment (Weeks). The museum houses a major collection of printed ephemera, maps, and books (circa 12,000 specimens) relating to Maidstone. The collection ranges from the 18th century to the present day, but the most comprehensive coverage is for the second half of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. The museum contains collections of Greek, Celtic, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, and modern English coins, love tokens, Kent tokens, hop tokens, jettons, miscellaneous foreign coins, local commemorative medallions, and medals, totalling over 20,000 specimens.
There are over 20,000 different species of plants and animals in Kent and Maidstone Museum’s vast collection reflects that local diversity. There are collections of plants (botany), including many specimens of species which are notoriously difficult to identify, and animals (zoology). The botany collection of around 55,000 specimens comprises a selection of Kentish flowering plants which is the best in the county and of national importance. There is also a collection of British flowering plants, as well as British collections of some critical genera, mainly of Kentish origin. The zoology collection is comprised of approximately 98,000 specimens, including mounted bird collections and good collections of bird skins, eggs, and nests, including local collections from ornithologist Guy Mannering. There are also mounted mammals and fish, as well as mammal skins. The entomology (insect) collections include around 250,000 specimens from around the world, including a European butterfly and moth (lepidoptera) reference collections, together with other insect species such as beetles. The Maidstone Museum Kent River Safari gallery, meanwhile, explores the habitats, plants, and animal species which make up our county’s unique natural heritage. Natural history specimens from around the world are also represented; the museum has an especially fine collection of shells from the South Sea Islands, bird specimens gathered by the great local Victorian collector, Julius Brenchley in 1865, and more exotic specimens of spiders, stick insects, Goliath beetles, and Indian butterflies.
Five disabled parking spaces for Blue Badge holders are available along the walled edge of Brenchley Gardens on Station Road. Parking is available for up to three hours and is just two minutes from the museum. Alternative disabled parking is available at Fremlin Walk. All visual assistance dogs are welcome throughout Maidstone Museum. Tours for hard of hearing groups and schools that wish to use their own interpreter can be booked prior to your visit. They aim to ensure that all wheelchairs and buggies have access to the majority of the ground floor, including toilets and baby changing facilities. Access via a lift to the first floor offers access to the temporary exhibition areas, art gallery, Japanese gallery, and Glass Room. Wheelchair and buggy accessible toilets are also available on the upper floor. Accessible areas include: Ground floor - Reception/visitor information, Gift shop, Collectors’ Gallery, Toilets and baby changing facilities, Sculpture Hall, Lady Godiva Courtyard, Library (by appointment only), Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment Museum, Great Hall, Local History Gallery, Dressing Rooms Gallery, Kentish Deli-Café. First Floor - Bentlif I Gallery – Fine Art, Sculpture, and Furniture, Japanese Gallery, Bentlif II Gallery & Bearsted-Bentlif Gallery – temporary exhibitions, Glass Room (by appointment only), Accessible toilet facilities. For visitors with electric mobility scooters, they regret that these are too heavy to use in the wheelchair lift available. However, a manual wheelchair is available to borrow during your visit. Please bring assistance with you and contact the museum before your arrival to reserve use of our manual wheelchair. Baby-changing facilities are available in the disabled facilities on the ground floor.
Location : Maidstone Museum, Saint Faith's Street, Maidstone ME14 1LH
Location : The Tyrwhitt-Drake Museum of Carriages, Mill Street, Maidstone Kent, ME15 6YE
Transport : Maidstone East (National Rail) then 3 minutes. Bus Routes : 79, 85 and 503 stop close by
Opening Times : April 1st to October 31st, Tues. to Saturday 10:00 to 17:00, Sundays 12:00 to 16:00; November through March, Tues to Saturday 10:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Free
Tel. : 01622 602838