Explore Exeter: A Comprehensive Guide to Arts, Culture, and History

26 Jun 2024

by Suzie Jones

In partnership with GWR. Your art adventure starts here.

A historic city and major interchange for trains travelling from London onto the South West, Exeter makes an excellent stop-off or base to explore the region for families seeking art, culture and local history.

The next stop on our cultural journey around the South West is Exeter. With a new exhibition exploring the history of transport and summer holidays approaching, we’re excited to share family-friendly events and must-see attractions in this vibrant city.

If You Only Do One Thing… Visit RAMM

Given an afternoon in Exeter, we’d make sure we spent time at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery or RAMM for short. The newly launched 'Are we nearly there yet?' exhibition at the museum explores the history of transport through the centuries, featuring bold, family-friendly displays and fascinating objects. People of all ages will find something to love here: from the sled from Captain Scott’s ill-fated 1911-12 expedition to Antarctica, to a 1950s flight jacket, an ornate miniature sedan chair, and, of course, the essential working model railway.

Brilliant family-friendly events accompany the exhibition throughout the holidays. Workshops include motorised LEGO race cars, cardboard aeroplanes, and hot air balloon crafts.

This inspired exhibition doesn’t ignore the environmental impact of heavy industrialisation and motorisation. Instead, it asks visitors of all ages to consider the impact our transport choices can have on the environment and the broader issue of climate change, and to contemplate what the future of transport in Exeter might look like.

For contemporary art aficionados, Ashanti Hare's commission 'River that never rests' offers a compelling portrayal of The River Exe, which is used metaphorically to explore the interwoven histories and cultures specific to Exeter and its broader connections.

Join the Local Creative Crowd: Arts and Museums in Exeter

A short walk from RAMM, Exeter Phoenix is a multi-arts venue with galleries, a cinema, performance spaces, and a café. It supports local creatives through classes, courses, and rehearsal spaces while offering an excellent public programme. Summer programme highlights suitable for young people or children include Sculpt-a-Selfie, Your Face My Face, Experimental Drawing, and Janet Sainsbury’s exhibition ‘The Gift Of Nearness’.

Alongside Exeter Phoenix, a number of other organisations are integral to the city’s small but rich arts scene. Also centrally located, Positive Light Projects hosts exhibitions and workshops with a number of partners, including Exeter University and the Pelican Project. Rooted in community engagement and social practice, the programme isn’t strictly for kids but is a friendly place to pop-you head into if you do have children in tow, and there’s an exhibition or event happening.

Working across the city, Art Work Exeter offers a vision for the town that is abundant in ‘inspirational, experimental and creative processes’. This artist-led organisation works in various public spaces including commercial, historic and civic buildings. They are currently in residence as cultural partners at Customs House, where they will be hosting activities through the summer. If their recent Dumpling Day and Display event is anything to go by, Art Work Exeter’s upcoming programme will continue to embrace themes of cultural exchange and community engagement.

Fusing creativity with ecology, the ART and ENERGY Collective is an award-winning group of artists, tinkerers, researchers, scientists, and makers based in the South West. They hold events throughout the region, but in August, they will be at The Transit Shed at Exeter Quay offering free, family-friendly creative activities with no booking required.

Bring the Drama: Theatre and Performances Across Exeter

With Exeter University running one of the best drama courses in the UK, it’s no wonder that there are an extraordinary number of theatre and performance groups, troupes, and venues in Exeter. If you’re keen to sample the best culture the city has to offer, consider including a live performance or, if you’re feeling brave, a hands-on workshop to your itinerary.

Theatre company Quirk makes theatre for all generations. Noted for their beautiful stage design and costumes, and drawing from a range of cultural backgrounds and experiences, whether you’re visiting Exeter with kids or not, we recommend you check for a Quirk production.

Signet Theatre offers productions and workshops, so if you’re looking to try your hand at a little am-dram, check out their programme. For those firmly in the audience camp, there’s folk music, Shakespeare, and experimental theatre happening throughout the summer months.

If you're local or spending all of summer in the area, Theatre Alibi is offering a summer school for children to try their hands at theatre making. The week will culminate in a performance of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ for friends and family.

Finally, spoken word producers Spork will be delivering events throughout the holidays, including their summer special in Rougemont Gardens on 1 August. With poetry, spoken word, and comedy on the agenda, we recommend you bring a picnic basket and soak up the atmosphere.

Explore the Past: Something for the History Cool Kids

Settled since ancient times, the Romans began developing the town of Isca, with major battles, sieges, and revolutions shaping it into modern-day Exeter. It’s not undergone major urbanisation, and a ramble around the historic streets provides a rich cultural experience. However, for families interested in learning more, the museums in and around the city give insights into ancient, recent, and modern times.

For older family groups, Tucker’s Hall, situated just off historic Fore Street, was home to The Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers & Shearmen in medieval times. Once a place for society meetings and ceremonies, it’s now open to visitors twice a week and hosts an occasional programme of family-friendly events such as historic dress-up or arts and crafts trails.

For exploration further afield, take a train from Exeter Central along the Exe Estuary to Topsham, and make a visit to Topsham Museum. The museum’s collection includes objects from the Roman occupation, the medieval period, and the more recent maritime history.

Hop back on the train to the popular resort town Exmouth and you can visit A la Ronde, a curious rotunda house built by two cousins, Jane and Mary, in the 1700s. After years spent travelling the world, collecting ideas and cultural references, at A la Ronde the cousins indulged their passion for design - creating a shell gallery, feather frieze, along with mosaic work, papercuts, and other crafted items.

For more recent history, Bill Douglas Cinema at Exeter University is home to one of the largest collections of material on the moving image in Britain. Though there are no public events on offer, objects have been put on display with younger visitors in mind - including shadow puppets, early moving toys, and magic lanterns. It is a little outside the centre of Exeter but well worth a visit.

History buffs will find more to explore by returning to RAMM, where alongside temporary exhibitions like ‘Are we nearly there yet?’, a vast array of historical collections await. From social history to natural sciences and antiquities, there’s something for everyone to find wonder in. Our highlights include George Montague’s Molluscs - a vast collection of shells awarded Designated status by Arts Council England, and Caleb Hedgeland’s model of Exeter, constructed between 1827 and 1824. It’s one of the earliest surviving models of any town in Britain and the only record of many buildings and streets which were later demolished.

With culture in all its forms on offer in Exeter, we encourage you to make it your next exploration destination, whether you’re with family, friends, or going solo. Plan your journey here.

Thank you to Arts and Culture Exeter for their insider knowledge, which helped us put this guide together.

→ The South West Art Travel Companion: A GWR-Partnered Guide to Exploring the South West, West, and South Wales

Thanks to our partnership with GWR, this guide brings the art-filled landscapes of the South West, West, and South Wales to your doorstep. Travel from one art exhibition to another, discovering how art transforms within the context of its environment. Embrace the convenience of booking ahead and travelling during quieter times with GWR Railcards, tailored for explorers young and seasoned. Plan your journey here.

Exeter Art, Culture and History Guide by ArtRabbit, in partnership with GWR. Your art adventure starts here.

→ More exhibitions and events in Bristol, Exeter, Falmouth, Swansea, Plymouth and more

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