How Bristol’s new Brunel museum takes its cues from Hollywood film Being John Malkovich

A new museum has been opened in Bristol which tries to give an insight – almost literally – into the mind of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s reputation has done nothing but soar in recent years, the 19th-century engineer now widely credited as ‘the man who built Britain’.

If we’re honest it’s a description which only fits if you define the nation as a series of dockyards, bridges, tunnels and defunct steamships. Yet his contribution is undeniable and is now being celebrated in a new £7.2 million museum in Bristol.

The museum opened a few weeks ago after six years of hard work at Bristol’s newly-restored, Grade II*-listed Great Western Dockyard – the yard where Brunel designed and built the SS Great Britain. That ship that was essentially the first modern ocean liner, the first ocean-going iron steamship, which revolutionised travel; it is in dry dock a few feet away from the ‘Being Brunel’ exhibition, which has been funded by a range of charitable trusts, from the Heritage Lottery Fund to the Being Brunel Corporate Club.

Highlights include a recreation of Brunel’s drawing office, put together by reference to a painting by his niece, and – in a slightly surreal twist – the chance for visitors to walk around inside a 26ft-tall model of the great man’s head for an audio/visual experience of his brain (with a hint of steam and cigar smoke).

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‘I want visitors to meet him, I want them to feel they actually know him,’ explains curator Rhian Tritton, who was inspired by the film Being John Malkovich.

‘I want them to be emotionally connected.’

Horse drawing by Brunel aged six

A horse drawing by Brunel, aged six

Among the 150 or so of Brunel’s personal artefacts on show, in six galleries that evoke the design of the Great Exhibition of 1851, is his 48-cigar case (a day’s supply), a school report, notebooks, diaries, designs and three paintings that he commissioned depicting works by Shakespeare.

‘By preserving Brunel’s legacy in this way, the museum aims to show what the man made, and what made the man, and we aim to inspire the innovators of the future,’ says Matthew Tanner, chief executive of the SS Great Britain Trust.

‘It will also highlight Brunel’s continuing relevance today with insight from “modern-day Brunels”, exploring how Brunel has inspired their work.’

The organisers are hoping to attract 200,000 visitors a year to the displays – you can find out more at