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Being Brunel in Bristol

A new family-friendly exhibition at Bristol’s SS Great Britain reveals the man behind the engineering legend — and famous stovepipe hat

General view of the interior of Being Brunel, the new museum dedicated to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, opening at the ss Great Britain, Bristol, on Friday 23rd March.
General view of the interior of Being Brunel, the new museum dedicated to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, opening at the ss Great Britain, Bristol, on Friday 23rd March.

The first thing you see is Brunel himself, dressed in his trademark stovepipe hat to welcome visitors in formal Victorian style. The second is rather more imposing, an eight metre high model of the visionary engineer and architect’s head, dominating the new Bristol museum dedicated to him.

One of the titans of the 19th century — involved in the Great Western Railway, Thames tunnel and designer of the Clifton suspension bridge, Bristol’s most iconic sight — the new £7.2 million Being Brunel attraction collects together never before seen artefacts and interactive exhibits to bring the man himself to life.

Because if his achievements are famous, not least the SS Great Britain next door, once the world’s longest passenger ship, the man himself is even more fascinating.

A talented artist from an early age, his attempts to draw in a rocking train carriage inspired a wish for smoother, more efficient transport; getting the chance to climb into a simulation carriage and attempt a circle on the special pads shows just how tricky it would have been.

Dedicated enough to swing from one side of the Avon Gorge to another in a basket, often getting stuck half way across, he would inspire great loyalty from some staff and colleagues, including his secretary Bennett, who shows visitors around an exact recreation of Brunel’s office. Probably rather less so in his assistant Fripp, who he lambasted as “a cursed, lazy, inattentive, apathetic vagabond” in a letter.

Secretly racked by self-doubt, as his diary reveals, his insecurity over his five foot height meant he was never seen without that trademark compensating eight inch hat.

It’s these details which make the museum so accessible, even for kids; Brunel’s cigar case, for example, with space for 48 cigars — only enough to last one of his 20-hour working days by the end of his life — and the tools he used to draw with.

And if the facts and figures of the various projects are a little overwhelming, you can always take them in over a version of Top Trumps instead.

At the heart of the museum’s six galleries is the chance to experience what it might have been to be Brunel, wandering through his ear canal inside that giant model head, into his brain, for a visual recreation of life as it might have been seen through Brunel’s eyes — scented with cigar smoke and steam.

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