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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... Silverstone Museum

From wartime airfield to the birthplace of the Formula One World Championship, Silverstone is a truly iconic motorsport destination.

I love Formula 1 and grew up watching the likes of Hunt, Lauda, Senna, Prost, Mansell, Schumacher, Hill, and more. I watch every race and all the build-up on TV and went to watch the British Grand Prix a few years ago, which was a memory I will cherish forever. My companion on this visit to the Museum was my daughter, in her mid-twenties, who, until a few years ago, tried to avoid all things F1 in our house. However, lockdown came and she found Drive to Survive on Netflix and was hooked. Now she doesn't miss a race, and was as keen to visit Silverstone, as she had been to visit the Harry Potter Tour a few days earlier. Liberty Media has won another person over. That's engagement in action.

Silverstone is one of the most historic and renowned motorsport race circuits in the world. Located near the village of Silverstone in Northamptonshire, England, it has hosted various motorsport events for over 75 years, making it an integral part of the motorsport landscape.

Known for being a fast and exhilarating circuit, a mix of high-speed straights and difficult corners, tackled in unpredictable weather conditions, make Silverstone a must watch race. Passionate and knowledgeable fans, combined with the sense of prestige associated with racing at such a historic venue, see Silverstone held in high regard within the racing community.

The recently opened Silverstone Museum, sitting at the main entrance to the race circuit, provides context and a fascinating day out for the racing enthusiast and is a fantastic addition to the tourism scene in the area.

“Silverstone is a place where so many legends of British motor racing have their roots. The speed and the glamour, though, are only part of the success of British motorsport since the late 1940s. This project will help visitors, many of whom will know little about many aspects of Silverstone’s heritage, to understand much more about the context and importance of this internationally renowned racing circuit.” Heritage Lottery Fund Chair, Sir Peter Luff (Clad News 2020)

The brand history

The site that would become Silverstone Circuit, was initially constructed as a Royal Air Force (RAF) bomber base in 1943, during World War II. Known as RAF Silverstone, the airfield was primarily used by the RAF's Bomber Command.

After the war, the airfield became disused, prompting a group of local racing enthusiasts to approach the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) in 1948, with the idea of using the site as a race track. The RAC agreed, and leased the airfield from the government and established the Silverstone Circuit. In October 1948, Silverstone held its first event, the RAC Grand Prix.


In 1950, in the presence of King George IV, Silverstone hosted the inaugural F1 World Championship Grand Prix race, won by Giuseppe Farina for Alfa Romeo, narrowly defeating his teammate Juan Manuel Fangio, and it has been a regular fixture on the Formula One calendar ever since. You can watch Silverstone-Where It All Began (Formula 1) for even more history.


While Silverstone has been the primary venue for the British Grand Prix, other circuits in the UK, such as Aintree and Brands Hatch, have also hosted the race on occasion.

Over the years, Silverstone has undergone several modifications and upgrades to enhance the racing experience. The original circuit layout was a former perimeter track of the airfield, and it underwent several changes over the decades to improve safety and accommodate modern motorsport requirements.


Silverstone has witnessed numerous iconic moments and battles in motorsport history. Legendary drivers like Fangio, Senna, Prost, and Hamilton have achieved notable victories on the circuit. Memorable moments include Michael Schumacher's dramatic collision with Damon Hill in 1995 and Nigel Mansell's thrilling last-lap overtake in 1987.

Silverstone has had different ownership arrangements throughout its history. The British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC) purchased the site in 1952 and remains the current owner of the brand. The BRDC is a group of more than 800 senior motorsport figures, including past and current F1 stars such as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, with David Coulthard as the club's president.


Silverstone has continuously evolved to meet modern motorsport standards. Various upgrades have been made to the circuit's infrastructure, including the construction of modern pit buildings, grandstands, and spectator facilities. The track has also been resurfaced multiple times to ensure optimal grip and safety for drivers.

In addition to hosting the British Grand Prix, which welcomes over 140,000 fans, Silverstone has been a venue for various other prestigious motorsport events. It has welcomed series such as the FIA World Endurance Championship, British Touring Car Championship, MotoGP, and other national and international racing championships. Silverstone has its own Experience Centre offering a full range of Driving Experiences, including Ferrari, Aston Martin, Single Seater and Rally cars, and offers track and testing days.

Silverstone has a strong focus on motorsport innovation and research. It is home to the Silverstone Technology Cluster, which aims to promote technological advancements in motorsport and automotive industries. The cluster brings together various companies, universities, and research institutions, to collaborate and develop cutting-edge technologies.


The recently opened Silverstone Museum is operated by Silverstone Heritage Ltd, a Community Benefit Society with a charitable mission to encourage visitors, young and old to learn about STEM careers, motorsport in general and to value and witness the preservation of artefacts on show and in the extensive archive.

“The Silverstone Experience is a great way to inspire kids to look more closely at the automotive industry." Sir Lewis Hamilton (2020)

The Visitor Centre design

The Silverstone Museum has encountered as many ups and downs as any Formula 1 race, from its original concept to its reopening on 17th May 2021.


The initial plans for an attraction at Silverstone were reported in 2016, for the renovation of a disused World War II hanger into a dynamic, interactive and educational experience.

Cube_Design were appointed the architects for the project, which was part financed by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to the tune of £9.1m. Work started in 2017, but the build schedule hit a roadblock when the main contractor went into administration, delaying the completion.

The museum exhibits, content and tour experience were designed by Mather & Co, who also designed the Royal Mint Experience, which I reported on in June 2023. With a portfolio that includes several visitor experiences I have visited more than once, such as The R&A World Golf Museum in St Andrews and Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, they really are a powerhouse of visitor centre design. Elmwoods, whom I have worked with on distillery visitor centre designs, completed the exhibition fit-out.

“The story of Silverstone is broader than just Formula 1, the site has a rich and diverse history, which has remained untold to the wider public until now and warrants further investigation and interpretation in a modern and dynamic visitor centre.” Chris Mather (Clad News 2016)

86 digital multi-media experiences, created by audio-visual, multimedia and software design firm AY-PE, complement the displays and exhibits, and give extra opportunities for interaction and education. I have enjoyed several of their installations, such as the animations at Edinburgh Castle and Titanic, Belfast.

The chequered flag was finally waved when the museum, a £20 million investment for the client The British Racing Drivers' Club (BRDC), opened on 6th March 2020. Noone at the opening ceremony, including Prince Harry and then Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, could have predicted what was to come just days after, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the museum to close its doors.

The museum was given £710k in emergency culture government funding in 2021, after receiving $572k in 2020 from the Culture Recovery Fund, to help with the negative effects of Covid pandemic closure and restrictions, eventually reopening on 17th May 2021.


The brand hoped that the Silverstone Museum would attract around half a million visitors a year. The museum reported in October 2021 that 120,000 visitors had passed through the doors since the original opening in March 2020, with numbers only lower than anticipated due to the effect of pandemic restrictions in the UK.


The attraction has changed its name several times. In the early concept stages it was being called Silverstone Heritage Experience. On initial opening it was renamed The Silverstone Experience Museum and it was officially renamed the Silverstone Interactive Museum when it reopened after Covid. The website now calls the attraction The Silverstone Museum. It doesn't matter what it is called, it is well worth an afternoon of your time and we wish everyone involved continued success in the future.


Entrance

From the car park out front, you head across the block-paved path, studded with the names of drivers from history. We spent a few minutes trying to find ones we knew.

Head inside and you enter a double height foyer with Lewis Hamilton's 2016 Mercedes F1 W07 Hybrid hanging above you from the ceiling. There's a small ticket desk where you check in and collect your wristband. After this, your time is your own, as the museum is self-guided. Our visit was on Mother's Day, a Sunday in March, and it was surprisingly quiet. It proved to be the perfect Mother's Day treat for me.

Pre-show

Your wristband is scanned and your excitement builds, as you take your place on a virtual grid, while an immersive audio/visual presentation counts down, until finally, it's lights out. The presentation charts the history of Silverstone, the sights and sounds of race day, including commentary, engines, the pits, and more, and lasts a few minutes. Sadly, this is a no video or photo zone. Look out for Jim Clark’s classic Lotus 49 roaring past you in all its former glory.

The Museum

From now on you can exit and enter the hangar and interact with whatever you want, without time constraints and pictures and video are allowed. Do make use of the café, as there is plenty to peruse, and you will need a break or two.

Before you venture too far, just take a look down onto the rest of the museum space. You'll get to that section in good time, so enjoy the exhibits upstairs first, but do note that there are glass panes in the mezzanine wall, so that the little ones can take a peek too.


History at Every Turn

The British Grand Prix has been held continuously at Silverstone since 1987, but some of the track’s quirky corner names such as Chapel, Becketts, Luffield, and Abbey go back much further.

In this gallery, we find out how the circuit's infamous 18 turns got their names, and the history of the site, from a medieval abbey via 18th century country estate to a World War Two airfield.

The first corner of the modern F1 layout, Abbey is one of two named after the 12th-century priory, Luffield Abbey, remains of which were discovered just north of the circuit.

The story of the 12th-century monks is told through a mix of fun, interactive visuals and even spaces for younger visitors to climb through.

There are exhibition panels with information at varying heights and even models to touch, making the whole experience even more accessible.


RAF Silverstone

The next gallery focuses on the history of the RAF base, and the men and women who served there.

Guests can see original uniforms and a variety of military paraphernalia, and listen to inspiring tales of wartime heroics, while kids bash buttons and pull levers around you.

We particularly enjoyed the two booths where we could learn about racing drivers of the time and their wartime stories. The ambient noise was perfectly controlled too, so you could hear everything.

We were particularly interested to learn about so many female racing drivers. They were true trailblazers.

Being from Scotland ourselves, we found a few notable drivers from back home, such as Margaret Jennings (née Allan), who achieved a number of successes, both as a racing driver and as a rally driver, in the 1930s. When war broke out she became an ambulance driver and then worked in Hut 4 at Bletchley Park's intelligence de-coding centre (now their café - I love that place). After the war, she became a journalist and was Vogue magazine's motoring correspondent. We even came home and did some more research on her. Now that proves the day out was educational.

My daughter had fun with the interactive elements in this gallery. She flew a plane, dropped propaganda leaflets and shot barrage balloons. The years she spent in the air cadets manifested little in the way of skills however. The only slight issue we did encounter, was having to wait quite a long time to take our turn on each device, even though it was quiet. Waiting patiently while other visitors, young and old, took multiple turns had us give up and move on a few times. I can imagine this would be more annoying when the museum is busier. It does however prove that the interactive elements are engaging. The problem is, how do you discourage someone from embarking on their twelfth bombing run?

A display on those from the airfield that were lost during the war, served as a poignant pit stop.

Village and Farm

What do elephants, carp and farmer's fields have to do with the circuit? In the next gallery, visitors can discover the history of farming on the site and the connection the circuit has with the local community. There are several exhibits that would entertain the younger visitor too, such as information on what animals are around the circuit. There is quite a focus on sustainability. We're told the circuit has hedgehog highways in the fences and bat boxes, has installed several thousand solar panels and improved habitat diversity.

On the opposite side of the gallery is information on the history of early racing and the Royal Automobile Clube (RAC), the British automotive services company that provides roadside assistance, insurance, and other services to its members. It was formed in 1897 as the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland and was granted the "Royal" title in 1907. The RAC played a significant role in the development of motoring in the United Kingdom and has a long history of promoting the interests of motorists.

You won't find a pint in the pub, but you can listen to stories from the locals. You'll have to visit to find out about the elephant.

It's a fun area with information delivered through several interactive elements, though you have to bend down to see some of the display cases. Even beer mats have local anecdotes on them. That's attention to detail.

Some of the ambient noise from other guests and areas of the museum did make it tricky to hear the sound recordings coming from the touchscreens, though my daughter was too busy playing the various games to notice.

Update for 2024 - If you want to see more items from the archive, they have volunteers in the 'Pub' on Wednesdays. This is a unique opportunity for visitors to examine historic race notes, programs, maps, driver sign-on sheets, and more. A terrific resource well worth checking out.

See the archive on Wednesdays - Image Silverstone Museum

Wings to Wheels

Exhibits here tell of a group of plucky drivers, including racing legend Sir Sterling Moss, who snuck onto the old airfield to race.

On 2 October 1948, the Royal Automobile Club hosted the first British Grand Prix at Silverstone, in front of 100,000 spectators on a track marked out with straw bales, oil drums and rope. One of the official programme's for the event is on show and I loved the fonts and painterly graphics. You can watch a video online of the race and see some of the spectacular crashes.

Visitors can manoeuvre themselves into a 1940s racing car and pretend to be one of those vintage racers.

My daughter found a brass rubbing station, and wanted a go, but found they had run out of supplies. Haynes Museum (which I wrote about in April 2023) also has brass rubbing stations and they were popular there too.


Race Day explained

This gallery explains the behind the scene work that goes on to prepare a car for race day.

Visitors learn about marshalling, the pit crew and mechanics, track safety, and can try their hand at commentating and using the pit guns. I am no Murray Walker it turns out.

Racing Eras

Are you ready for a huge nostalgia hit? Visitors can get up close to some of the most significant racing and touring cars and bikes, artefacts from drivers such as helmets and programmes, trophies, race suits and much more, all from the extensive BRDC archive.

The exhibits, which are regularly changed, are fascinating, detailed and beautifully laid out, with graphic backdrops, a huge AV projection wall and come with additional information on touch screens and headphones. I have to admit that I spent most of our visit in this large gallery, reminiscing while explaining the relevance of certain exhibits to my daughter and feeling very old. She wasn't around for the Hunt/Lauda years, or the battles between Prost and Senna, or the rivalry between Mansell and Schumacher. The information panels are complimented with videos from the great and good of the racing world, past and present.

There are even documents signed by famous drivers.

There are some very special exhibits here too, such as motorcycle racing legend Barry Sheen's Suzuki RT-67, one of the rarest bikes in the world, on which he won 3 world championships in the 1970s, and his leathers from his last season in 1984.

Also on show is Nigel Mansell's Williams F1 race suit from his 1987 season, when he won the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, plus cars like Sir Jackie Stewart's 1971 Tyrell 003, in which he won the Formula One world championship.

Younger visitors can dress up as Lewis or you can just gaze at his race suit and helmet from the 2020 British Grand Prix.

Whilst there’s nowhere near the range of vehicles you have at the British Motor Museum or at Haynes Motor Museum in Somerset, it is worth remembering that this museum is really about the circuit, rather than just the cars and bikes on show.


Tech Lab

In Tech Lab, visitors can learn about how cars and motorbikes are designed, tested and developed and have a go at multiple hands-on installations that explain engineering processes, such as aerodynamics, braking, and tyre compounds.

Here was another area where ambient noise was an issue. The gallery is large, with a lot going on in one space, and when you add guests talking into the equation, some might struggle, as we did, to catch all the content.

There is so much to educate and inspire future engineers here though, and no doubt this section is especially useful for school visits.


The Scalextric Set

A 25-metre-long Scalextric recreation of Silverstone was being completed when we visited and it went on display a few weeks later. Slot car fans are now able to take part in time trials and tournaments, which have to be pre-booked. I was gutted to miss it. (The geek that I am, I'm heading to Hornby's visitor centre soon, as they make Scalextric, as well as train and Airfix models.)

Simulator experience

The motion simulator sessions have to be booked separately, and when we visited the area was empty. It is hailed as "the UK's best sim racing setup" but the cost of living crisis has many people cutting back on spending extra on top of entrance tickets. Simulator slots last for 30 minutes, cost £25 per person, and can be booked from 10am-12:30pm and 2pm-4:30pm.


The Ultimate Lap

Our last stop in the museum was the special-effects cinema dome, for what was billed as "The Ultimate Lap of Silverstone", with commentary from the likes of Murray Walker.

This was the only dud note for the whole day and neither I, nor many of the visitors we talked to, enjoyed it. Why did we need an animation when a film of actual races would have been more authentic and thrilling? Why did the movements of the rumble seats not align with the film, jiggling us around in a random fashion? Why did the 360 experience feel like we were in a washing machine? Everyone left slightly bemused. Online reviews seem to agree with me too.

Huge work went into this film, including filming in locations around the track and complex 3d modelling and CGI design work. I appreciate the skill involved. My daughter declared that her idea of the ultimate lap would be to sit behind the wheel with Lewis or Lando, in an actual race, but with the smells, sounds, sights and motion that a lap with them would involve, like you see on TV but even better. One slight let down though isn't bad going in an afternoon full of fun.


The Café

The café offered simple fayre at reasonable prices, considering we were a captive market. There is no competition surrounding the museum, so this could be your only option for food during your visit. It was clean and quiet, only half filling up at lunchtime.

You can even visit the shop and café from Monday to Friday without paying to enter the museum, though this can change when major events are on.


Track access

There is no view of the circuit from the museum, which is a bit of a shame. However, guests can exit through a door by the café and get access to some of the old track and a viewing area, from which, if you're lucky like we were, you can watch cars racing past. During big events like the British Grand Prix and Moto GP there is no track access from the museum and even we found that full access to the Heritage Track Trail was restricted slightly due to cars on track.

There are plenty of signs and information boards, so it's well worth a trip outside. We were out there for half an hour and could have stayed longer. It definitely convinced my daughter to add a trip to the Grand Prix to her bucket list.


The Shop

The retail space is quite small in comparison to the size of the museum and does not hold a huge amount of stock. The items on sale are quite generic, with very few Formula 1 teams represented.

My daughter was looking for a greater selection of apparel and team merchandise. She bought a few toy cars as souvenirs, but struggled to find anything else of interest. Compared to the museum shop at Haynes Motor Museum, which I wrote about on this site in April 2023, it is tiny and could do with offering much more for the petrol head or casual race fan.


Hotel

Silverstone collaborated with Hilton to open its first trackside hotel, with a bridge linking the five-storey hotel to the Silverstone Wing and its dining, conference and event facilities.

The Hilton Garden Inn, Silverstone has a rooftop bar, a restaurant with an outdoor terrace, and 197 rooms and suites offering high-octane views of the legendary starting grid and Hamilton Straight. I know where I'll be booking the next time I visit.


Summer of F1 exhibition - from 8th July 2023 to Sept 2023

The brand has just announced a new exhibition that will showcase some of the most famous F1 cars from racing stars of the past and present, timed to open for the British Grand Prix weekend 2023. Ayrton Senna’s 1991 McLaren MP4/6, Nigel Mansell’s winning Williams FW14B, Michael Schumacher’s 7UP Jordan 191, Coulthard’s 2000 McLaren MP4/15 and Damon Hill’s Williams FW16C plus many more, will be on show in this special exhibit. This comes hot on the heels of an exhibition on 100 years of Le Mans, and creates an ever changing experience and certainly stops the museum from becoming stale.


In conclusion

This is yet another excellent visitor centre designed by Mather & Co. There is plenty of content, though it never feels overwhelming. There are beautifully presented artefacts, with dynamic lighting and tonnes of circulation space, so your view is never encumbered by other guests. The brand's story and history are well told and given perfect context.


Young and old have been considered and there is plenty to keep little ones amused, with quirky and fun interactive displays and projections that will entertain everyone.


There is plenty of seating throughout the galleries, something that I really do appreciate. Seating is so important for those with mobility issues, and many visitor attractions offer so little of it. Even those of us that do not have mobility needs enjoy a pitstop on a bench, boosting our stamina for a longer visit.


There are many things those with sight loss would be able to interact with, although I do feel that scale models that can be touched, of the cars and bikes in the Racing Eras gallery, would enhance the experience further for them. I've seen it done in very few places, and it is always beneficial when so much is behind glass or in a roped off area.


Nothing is perfect, so the slight disappointment in the Ultimate Lap film can be forgiven, though I wish it wasn't the last thing we encountered in the museum. If I had my way I'd change the film content to appeal more to the petrolhead visitor. Not everything needs to be for the kids after all.


There is a wealth of content that would be perfect for reminiscence sessions, something I know I bang on about a lot, but for those with dementia, having artefacts and content such as that on display here, can unlock memories and prove to be a truly positive experience. Even those of us without dementia will appreciate the wallow in nostalgia that the museum provides. Nostalgia tourism is a growing trend after all.


With constant refreshing of the exhibitions and rotating artefacts in and out of the brand's archive, the museum will remain fresh and current.


History buffs and race fans will undoubtedly be inspired and educated on all aspects of racing and the museum is a valuable resource at the beating heart of motorsport in the UK.


Stop languishing in the pits and book in.


How long was the visit?

We were there for 5 hours on a Sunday and only left as we had a flight to catch. We had just about read and interacted with everything, but it was quiet and during summer holidays I would imagine it would be busier. The brand recommend a 3 hour visit, so we took a bit longer but did stop for lunch in the café.


How much are tickets?

We paid for our own tickets and this was not part of any advertising.

I paid for our tickets online, in advance, and they cost £22.50 per adult.

You can return for free within the year, which I might do.

Carers can enter for free with a person requiring a disability ticket and the museum offers relaxed opening hours for visitors with neurodiverse conditions and other sensory processing difficulties, and their families/carers.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary.

When we visited the museum it was open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Last entry is 2 hours before closing, and that can really hamper what you can do. We watched as many visitors were politely turned away.


 

Where we stayed:

We stayed for one night at the closest hotel we could find, the Premier Inn Silverstone, just a 6 minute drive away from the museum. It might have been close, and had free parking, comfy beds and a large room, but they have no air conditioning and did not offer any breakfast service due to staff shortages, something we only discovered that morning and I would only stay there again if it was cheap. I know from attending race days that the price for this hotel can be eye-watering and would be far from value for money, but it is undoubtedly close by.

Consider staying somewhere for a few days in the Cotswolds, like we did when visiting for the British Grand Prix. It's much better and still easy enough to get to.


Getting here:

We were on a 3 day long weekend trip from Scotland, flying in from Edinburgh to London Luton airport with EasyJet and hiring a car. Both Birmingham and Luton Airport are just over an hour long drive from the museum, with Heathrow an hour and a quarter drive away.


If you're driving like we were, just follow signs to Silverstone Circuit and the museum has signage and a large car park in front, which is free.


NOTE: If you attend on a major event weekend (when a ticket to the race meeting is compulsory), you will be directed to the main available public car parks, which will not be immediately adjacent to the building.


What else is there to see close by:

There are a few places I have visited and enjoyed that I can recommend.


Bletchley Park, home of the code-breaking teams of the Second World War is just 18 miles away. The last time I visited I was there for 6 hours and still didn't finish everything. It is truly fascinating and inspiring.


The famous university city of Oxford and its numerous attractions are just 30 miles from Silverstone. The city has a park-and-ride system that you should use, that saves you from having to find limited and expensive parking in the city centre. Harry Potter fans can see some of the filming locations such as Christ Church College and the stunning Bodleian Library. I would also recommend two fabulous museums, the Ashmolean and one of my personal favourites, The Pitt Rivers, which holds the University's eclectic archaeological and anthropological collections.


Silverstone is also easy to reach from the Cotswolds and its famous towns such as Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon (40 miles away) and Stow-on-the-Wold (38 miles away) plus many others. The area has multiple, quaint and historic villages, plus a wealth of cultural attractions and I can recommend spending at least a few days in the area.


50 miles away is the Warner Brother's Studio Tour - The Making of Harry Potter, which I visited during the same weekend, and which I have written about on this site.

Visited: March 2023

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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