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Explore the history of Manchester Museum to find out more about how our collection and historic buildings developed.


Explore the history of Manchester Museum to find out more about how our collection and historic buildings developed.

The origins of The Manchester Museum lie in the collection of the Manchester manufacturer and collector John Leigh Philips (1761-1814).

After his death, a small group of wealthy men banded together to buy his 'cabinet', and in 1821 they set up the Manchester Natural History Society.The museum was the major focus of the Society, and it was housed from 1835 in grand premises on Peter Street. The collections continued to grow as members and others donated objects from around the world. In 1850 the museum absorbed the collections of the Manchester Geological Society.

By the 1860s the Natural History Society had little money and the building was full. The museum was transferred in 1868 to Owens College, which later became the University of Manchester. The College asked the famous architect Alfred Waterhouse to design a museum building, which was opened to the public in 1890. Waterhouse also designed Manchester's Town Hall and the Natural History Museum in London.

Now known as the 'Manchester Museum', the collections were used by many people, from Owens College professors to schoolchildren. Many more objects were donated and the Museum was extended in 1912-1913 and again in 1927. These new buildings, designed by Waterhouse's son and grandson, displayed new ethnographic and Egyptology collections. They were funded largely by Jesse Haworth, a local textile merchant and keen Egyptologist.

During the First World War, many local schools were used as military hospitals. In cooperation with the local education authorities, the Manchester Museum gave classes to the displaced school children. This system, which continued for 80 years, was one of the first of its kind in the country.

Over the twentieth century, the collection was split into archery, archaeology, botany, Egyptology, entomology, ethnography, mineralogy, palaeontology, numismatics and zoology, as well as live specimens in the aquarium and vivarium. Overall, the collection grew to six million items, and the staff expanded from four 'keepers' to over 70 museum professionals. Many of these were world-class scholars, and the Museum was the site for cutting-edge research in the natural sciences and humanities.

This was matched with growing public interest and an emphasis on exhibitions. From the 1950s, the Museum staged a variety of temporary exhibitions in a special gallery near the entrance. With key exhibits such as the Moon Rock in 1969 and 'Lindow Man' (in 1987 and 1991), the Museum attracted up to 250,000 visitors.

The museum expanded again in 1977 into the former Dental School. In 1997 the Museum was awarded a £12.5 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and this, together with money from the European Regional Development Fund, the University of Manchester, the Wellcome Trust, The Wolfson Foundation and other sponsors has enabled the Museum to undertake the refurbishment and building which opened in 2003. We’re now looking ahead to another transformation and a milestone moment in the museum's long history. A new extension and reconfiguration of existing spaces is underway and the £15million project is expected to be completed in 2023.

While all of this is fascinating and exciting, we mustn’t overlook how the museum came to be. The historical funding of institutions around the world has been the focus of popular and scholarly attention in recent years. Britain, its institutions, and its people played a regrettably active role in the transatlantic slave trade and in plantation slavery, and benefited from the wealth produced from these activities. The University of Manchester has researched into its early benefactors, revealing that some of the wealth that enabled them to donate to university institutions was derived from the slave trade, including John Leigh Philips. Philips’ success in textile manufacturing rested on slave-grown cotton and you can read more about this research here. This is ongoing work and further investigation continues.

If you have any queries regarding the history of The Manchester Museum, or you would like to consult the archive, please email museum@manchester.ac.uk