The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge is Canterbury’s main museum of art and local history, which has been operating for over 120 years.
The museum is a Grade II listed Tudor Revival-style building that dates from the late Victorian period and it has previously been known as the Beaney Institute and the Royal Museum and Art Gallery.
The museum was founded in 1899 after Dr James George Beaney left £10,000 for the establishment of a museum in Canterbury and Canterbury City Council added additional funds so the new museum could accommodate the city’s existing local history museum.
The museum underwent refurbishment between 2009 and 2012, which has improved the visitor experience without detracting too much from the museum’s Victorian-era charm.
What to see at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge
The museum’s original collection includes English and European ceramics, Anglo-Saxon grave jewellery and prehistoric Roman and Anglo-Saxon artefacts that have been found in Kent. There are also some exhibits relating to the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment).
The museum is organised into several galleries, which combine both artworks and traditional artefacts about local history and culture and natural history. These include the Garden Room, the Colour and Camouflage gallery, the People and Places gallery, the Explorers and Collectors gallery and Materials and Masters.
The Garden Room includes a number of artefacts with local significance including a Roman carving of a dog chasing its tail that was excavated from Church Lane as well as a significant collection of paintings by Canterbury-born artist Thomas Sidney Cooper (1803–1902).
The Colour and Camouflage gallery focuses mostly on colours in the natural world and how wildlife use camouflage to either stand out to attract a mate or hide from predators.
The People and Places gallery features sculptures of the Magna Carta barons, an interesting display about Susan Bertie, Later Countess of Kent plus art including Van Dyck’s 1638 portrait of Sir Basil Dixwell. This gallery is also noted for its display about the children’s book character Rupert Bear, which was created by Cantabrian Mary Tourtel, who illustrated the Rupert Bear annuals and comic strips from 1920 until 1935.
People and Places also has exhibits about the pilgrimage to Canterbury that followed the death of Archbishop Thomas Becket. This exhibit includes artefacts including pilgrim badges, a religious souvenir bought by pilgrims to commemorate their journey.
The Explorers and Collectors gallery is home to artefacts brought back to England from British explorers, including artefacts from Africa, India and ancient Egypt. In addition to artefacts from around the globe, this gallery also includes artefacts from Anglo-Saxon Kent as well as the Canterbury Cross, which dates from around 850 AD and was discovered in 1867, becoming a symbol of the Anglican church.
Materials and Masters is a gallery that shows how craftspeople have transformed raw materials into useful and decorative objects. In contrast to many museum galleries, Materials and Masters is arranged by raw material rather than by time period. This gallery is also home to a collection of 16th-century Dutch paintings.
Temporary exhibitions at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge
The museum also hosts a programme of temporary exhibitions. Current and planned exhibitions include:
The Open House exhibition (until 7 January 2024) offers an exciting exploration of the museum’s collection while encouraging visitors to share their stories and experiences. The exhibition showcases diverse objects and artworks from the Beaney’s collection, including paintings, sculptures, natural history specimens and archaeological artefacts.
Storytellers is a compelling group exhibition (until 25 February 2025) that explores the profound connection between art and storytelling. Featuring 23 contemporary artists from Kent across various disciplines, the exhibition delves into the idea that artworks convey narratives, evoke emotions, and spark discussions. Beyond visual appeal, each piece contributes to a larger narrative. Artists like Brian Aris, Steve Bloom, and Louise Giblin share their perspectives through diverse narratives, inviting visitors to engage not only through written descriptions but also immersive audio experiences accessible via QR codes, offering insights into the artists’ intentions and inspirations.
Sensing Culture: Eye-Dentity
Sensing Culture: Eye-Dentity is an exhibition (13 January–10 March 2024) by vision-impaired individuals, offering insights into how they perceive the world. The exhibition, featuring various eye conditions, provides a unique experience for visitors to understand sight loss. ‘Eye Boxes’ within the exhibit use materials to replicate the artists’ eye conditions, showcasing scenes with double, blurred, or no vision. Opaque film covers bright images, and pin-hole apertures mimic central vision. The exhibition includes artists’ voices and resulted from workshops led by the MESS ROOM and mixed media artist Wendy Daws, with the collaboration of blind and partially sighted artists.
Visiting the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge
The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge is on High Street, right in the heart of the city centre. Most other points of interest in Canterbury are nearby including Canterbury Cathedral and the Canterbury Roman Museum, which are both only a 2–3-minute walk from the museum.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday and admission is free of charge.
The 2009–2012 refurbishment programme added disabled access to the museum and it is now accessible to disabled visitors.
You should allow 1–2 hours to visit the museum.