How To Make A Museum…

The Museum's Oxford Road elevation
The Museum’s Oxford Road elevation

How do you start a museum? They seem like such amazing, impossible yet solid places, it’s difficult to imagine a time when they simply weren’t there!

Well, back in 1821 there was no Manchester Museum. That year several wealthy gentleman with the Victorian passion for science and nature, formed the Manchester Society of Natural History and bought John Leigh Phillips’ collection. By 1835 they had a rather grand classically columned building on Peter street. The only sign that it was ever there now is Museum Street.

In 1850, the collection expanded when they merged with the Manchester Geological Society who brought their prize item, an ichthyosaurus found at Whitby. The two societies weren’t exactly happy bedfellows. The Natural History Society were charging visitors a penny for admission while the Geological Society believed entrance should be free which just goes to show that questions over how to fund our museums aren’t a new thing! They came to a compromise where the Geological Society rooms would be free but the societies came to blows again over umbrella stands! Again, the Natural History Society charged for the use of theirs and were accused by the Geological Society of forcing their visitors to pay by nefarious means (eventually, the Geological Society bought their own umbrella stand).

Whether it was down to umbrella-stand-gate or not, by 1868 both societies had fallen on hard financial times and the building on Peter Street was bursting at the seams. Step in ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ Thomas Huxley, a vehement evolutionist whose debate with Samuel Wilberforce had been a key moment in the theory’s growing acceptance. He suggested that the societies not only give their collections to Owen’s College but that a new building, that reflected the theory of evolution be commissioned. The college, who had already had quintessential gothic-revival architect, Alfred Waterhouse, design their quad and surrounding buildings, asked him back again to design the new museum, which would face the busy thoroughfare of Oxford Road.  According to Sir Phillip Hartog “On November 29th, 1882, a public meeting was held in the Town Hall to launch a subscription for new buildings … In August, 1883, the extensions were begun; they included the north side of the quadrangle and half the frontage to Oxford Street, as far as and including the tower”. As per Huxley’s recommendation the galleries were fashioned as a series of aisles evoking the progress of evolution rather than the more cathedral-like interior of the Natural History Museum in London that Waterhouse also designed.

The Manchester Museum opened to the public in 1888 and has remained open ever since; spreading into three more buildings with its 4.5million objects. It is the largest university owned museum in the country and an important research facility for scholars from around the world. Just as importantly it is a place anyone can walk in to – tourists or locals, students or families, United or City fans – and see some of the same objects those Victorian gentlemen collected in the name of science … and you don’t even have to pay for the umbrella stand!


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