The Manchester Museum is a University institution, which owes its origins to the collections of the Manchester Natural History Society, founded in 1821. The Museum serves both academic and public audiences, and has been described as "a university collection with civic responsibilities" [Alberti, Nature and Culture, p.6].
The Manchester Natural History Society was founded in 1821 by a group of Manchester mercantile and professional men. Established as the "Manchester Society for the Promotion of Natural History", the Society originally looked after the collection of one of its members, Thomas Robertson, who had previously purchased part of the collection of John Leigh Philips (1761-1814). Philips had been one of Manchester's leading collectors of art and natural objects, and it was the latter category of material which Robertson had acquired on Philips' death. On Robertson's death, the Society purchased his collection, and transferred it to premises in King St. These proved unsuitable for displaying the collection, and the Society began to raise funds to build a museum. This was completed in Peter Street in central Manchester, and opened in May 1835.
The Society was typical of the "elite" learned societies, which appeared in the early 19th century Manchester. The presidents of the Society were Edward Holme (1821-1847), John Moore (1847-1857) and J A Turner (1857-1868). The collections were curated by a mixture of Society members and Museum employees. In 1834, William Crawford Williamson was appointed Chief Curator to oversee the collections, and was succeeded by Thomas Brown (1838-1862) and Thomas Alcock (1862-1868). The Society also employed taxidermists to prepare exhibits. The Society's collections were particularly strong for geology, mineralogy and vertebrate zoology, although there were also items which fell into the "curiosity" category, such as an Egyptian mummy, a Buddha and the skeleton of Napoleon's horse, Vizir. From 1851, the Society shared space at the museum with the Manchester Geological Society, founded in 1838; this proved a somewhat uneasy relationship. The Museum was primarily for the benefit of the subscribing and honorary members of the Society, but in time members of the general public were allowed to view the exhibits.
By the 1860s, the Natural History Society had lost some of its momentum; it was facing competition from the nearby Salford Museum, opened in 1850, and the Society had petitioned Manchester Corporation for financial help. In 1868, the Society dissolved itself, and agreed to transfer its collections to Owens College. The Society set up a commission to administer the collections during this interim period, and to dispose of the Society's financial assets. In 1872, the Peter St. Museum was sold, and the money was used to endow a new museum building, and support its staff and collections. Owens College saw potential in the museum collections for its teaching and research activities, but could not accommodate these in its Quay St building. Its planned removal to Oxford Road, completed in 1873, offered the prospect of a purpose-built home, but when the collections (which included the Geological Society's collection) were transferred to the new building, they did not have proper accommodation, and were kept in the attics of the main building for several years.
Owens consulted leading figures about the requirements of the new museum including the naturalist T H Huxley. At this stage, the Museum was seen as having a primarily academic function. Academics and students were to be granted privileged access to the collections, although public access to the collections was also envisaged. The new regime at the Museum tended to be academic in sympathy, confirmed by the appointment of the geologist William Boyd Dawkins as curator in 1869. Dawkins, who later became professor of geology at Owens, maintained a connection of over 50 years with the Museum, and was crucial in setting the tone for its activities. A Museum Committee was appointed to oversee its work in 1888, and this too was dominated by its academic members.
Designs for new Museum were drawn up by Alfred Waterhouse, who had already designed the main College building. The Museum was to be an imposing neo-Gothic building (very different in conception from Waterhouse's better-known design for the Natural History Museum in London) in the north-east corner of the main quadrangle, and close to the departments of botany, zoology and geology. The foundation stone was laid in 1882, and the Museum opened in 1888. At this stage, it comprised a large central hall with two surrounding galleries.
Academic staff played a significant role in the early years of the Museum; they were responsible for the classification of collections, and also influenced collecting policy. There were relatively few full-time curatorial staff. In 1889, Dawkins gave up his role as keeper and was succeeded by William Evans Hoyle (keeper, 1889-1900, director, 1900-1909). Hoyle and his successors Walter Medley Tattersall (keeper, 1909-1922) and Rev. Dr George H Carpenter (keeper, 1923-1934) were zoologists. Vertebrate palaeontology enjoyed special prestige in the collections. The Museum continued to depend on financial donations from benefactors, as well as funds from the University of Manchester and grants from Manchester Council. Building projects were particularly dependent on fund-raising, and the local businessman and collectors, proved important in supporting the 1912 and 1927 extensions to the building. A subscribers group also helped raise money.
During the First World War, the Museum began to receive visits from school children on a regular basis (in part, this was due to schools being displaced from their buildings due to the War). A formal programme of school visits was begun with the support of Manchester Education Authority, which employed teachers to carry out this work. Schools visits were predominantly for primary school children, and during the inter-war period, school children formed the largest group of visitors to the Museum. The Education Service continued to be supported by the local council until the mid-1990s, and school children still form one of the most important categories of visitor to the Museum.
During the inter-war period, there was a perceptible shift in the Museum's work from the scientific to "cultural" collections - archaeology, anthropology and Egyptology. This reflected in part a decline in use of the Museum by the University's scientific departments, which increasingly focussed on laboratory work, and also to growing public interest in this type of cultural collection. Of particular note, was the public interest in Egyptology in this period, and the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society enjoyed a close relationship with the Museum. Archaeological excavations, particularly in the Mediterranean area, were making more ancient human material available, and colonial exploration and trade stimulated the exchange of ethnological items. In 1927, a further extension of the Museum to the north of the main building reflected this change in emphasis with new galleries dedicated to archaeology, ethnography, Egyptology and numismatics (the latter an "unintended" development due to a major donation by Reuben Spencer in 1904]. The rise of the cultural collections was reflected in the appointment of R. U. Sayce as Keeper in 1935 [Sayce built up British ethnography collection, which was transferred to Salford Museum in 1969].
By the post-war period, the Museum was seen increasingly as a local cultural institution, reflected in local authority financial support and increasing number of general public users. Although the University maintained ownership, funding from some traditional channels proved difficult, and the Museum's collections seemed less relevant to mainstream University research [although some University academics continued to play an important role in the Museum's work]. A plan to separate the scientific collections and transfer them to the University's new Science Area on the eastern side of Oxford Road came to nothing. From the appointment of David Owen as Director in 1957 (the title "Keeper" was discontinued for the executive head, and existing assistant keepers became full keepers), the Museum focussed on making its collections attractive to the public; special exhibitions were held - those on Moon rock, Egyptian mummies and Lindow Man - proving especially popular. The Museum also updated its education programme, and issued a range of leaflets to the public about the collections. Several galleries were refurbished, and in 1977 the Museum finally acquired the old Dental Hospital, previously occupied by the Department of Metallurgy.
In recent years, the Museum has once again re-engaged with the University's academic staff, as well as promoted its collections to many other audiences. In early 21st century, the Museum embarked an another major development project, supported in part by Heritage Lottery money, major extension at the rear of the Oxford Road building, provided a new public entrance, exhibitions and storage facilities, opened in 2003.