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Peter D. A. Boyd

An historic past and a new future for Shrewsbury Museums

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BOYD, P.D.A. 2008. 'An historic past and a new future for Shrewsbury Museums'. In: Special publication celebating the 25th Anniversary of the Friends of Shrewsbury's Borough Museums. [Edited version]

A new phase in the history of Shrewsbury's museums will commence in April 2009 when Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council becomes absorbed into the new Shropshire Council and Shrewsbury Museums Service merges with Shropshire County Museum Service.

Shrewsbury's museum collections were initiated in 1835 by the Shropshire and North Wales Natural History Society.

"AT A MEETING held at Shrewsbury on the 26th of June, 1835, it was Resolved to establish a NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY for the COUNTY OF SALOP and NORTH WALES, and to found a Central MUSEUM and SCIENTIFIC LIBRARY - and in pursuance of an object so important to the promotion of Science within this extensive District, it was Resolved to solicit the concurrence and co-operation of the Nobility, Clergy, Gentry, and Inhabitants generally of Shropshire and North Wales".

Later the same year the Society became the Shropshire and North Wales Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The Society had clear aims for the museum:

"The MUSEUM is principally designed to illustrate the NATURAL HISTORY OF THE DISTRICT, in its various branches of Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology, and Botany, by the gradual formation of complete and systematic arrangements of its productions, in each of these departments. It will also be open to other objects of Scientific interest, and in particular, it will be a suitable Repository for such REMAINS OF ANTIQUITY as are found within the District, or illustrate its General History. But, in addition to these more local objects, the Museum will, it is hoped, through the liberality of the Friends of Science in various quarters, be enriched with many specimens from distant localities ........ To those who are in possession of any objects of Scientific interest, which they can spare, it can hardly be necessary to point out how greatly the value and utility of such objects is enhanced, as well as their permanence secured, by their being removed from the obscurity of a private collection to the arranged repositories of a Public Institution".

Items donated to the museum in the first couple of days of the museum in June 1835 included:

8 minerals and fossils from Dr Thomas Du Gard,

1 Lumbricus teres [a parasitic worm] from Cholera patient (in spirits) from Dr Henry Johnson,

1 Gordius aquaticus with fungus growing upon it (in spirit) from Dr Henry Johnson,

63 Minerals and fossils from Dr Henry Johnson,

1 Fasciola hepatica [Liver Fluke] found in the gall-ducts of a sheep (in spirits) from Dr Henry Johnson,

1 Fossil from Caynham Camp near Ludlow from Dr Henry Johnson,

18 Specimens of woods and sections illustrative of Vegetable Physiology from Dr Henry Johnson,

10 Minerals from the Highlands of Scotland from Dr Henry Johnson,

1 Flying fish (Exocatus volitans) (in spirits) from Mr John Jones,

50 Minerals, ores and fossils from Mr Richard Ford

2 Phallus impudicus [Stink Horn Fungus] (in spirits) from William Allport Leighton,

150 Specimens of dried British Plants chiefly collected in Shropshire from William Allport Leighton,

1 Fossil Stem from Nobold, Shropshire from William Allport Leighton.

The museum was first sited on Dogpole, Shrewsbury in a building that, in recent times (before the move to the new Guildhall at Frankwell), housed the Treasurer's Department of Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council. Later, it moved to another building on Dogpole before moving to Vaughan's Mansion on College Hill (next to the Music Hall) in 1853. It was known as 'The Shropshire and North Wales Museum'.

In 1877, the Society merged with the new Shropshire Archaeological and Natural History Society but the museum remained in Vaughan's Mansion. However, in 1885 (50 years after the foundation of the museum) the museum and library collections were transferred to the recently vacated old Shrewsbury School building near the Castle and placed in public ownership (Corporation of Shrewsbury). It became known as Shrewsbury Free Library & Museum.

In 1924, Shrewsbury Castle was acquired by the Corporation of Shrewsbury through the generosity of Shropshire Horticultural Society. However, it was not used to house museum collections until later.

In 1931, 'Rowley's House' was acquired by the Corporation of Shrewsbury through the generosity of Morris and Co. to house Roman remains from the site of the Viroconium (Uriconium) near Wroxeter. The building became known as the Uriconium or Roman Museum when it opened to the public in 1938.

In, 1967 Clive House was acquired for use as a museum to display fine art, decorative arts and, for some years, militaria.

In 1974, Local Government re-organisation resulted in Shrewsbury Library and the old Shrewsbury School building being transferred to the ownership of Shropshire County Council. However, the Museum Collections were retained by the Borough (the new Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council) and transferred to Rowley's House, Clive House and other SABC buildings. The timber framed warehouse part of 'Rowley's House' had been owned by the Local Authority since the 1930s but the brick and stone Rowley's Mansion adjoining it was not acquired until 1981. For much of its early history, Shrewsbury's museums had been run by Honorary Curators and later (in public ownership) by Librarians with museums as just part of their responsibilities. The acquisition of the mansion allowed reorganisation of the whole museum and required the appointment of a new full-time Museum Curator, Vivien Bellamy. Vivien describes the scene that met her when she arrived in Shrewsbury and the subsequent formation of the Friends elsewhere.

In 1985, the Shropshire Regimental Museum (Shropshire Regimental Museum Trust) opened in Shrewsbury Castle. However, seven years later, in 1992, the castle and the regimental displays were severely damaged by fire following IRA terrorist action. The Castle and Shropshire Regimental Museum did not re-open until 1995.

In 1992, Shrewsbury Steam Trust was formed to restore the Steam Beam Pumping Engines at Coleham Pumping Station that had been opened as a sewage pumping station in 1901. The wonderful steam beam engines had not been operated since the 1970s and it was to take many years of dedicated effort from the Steam Trust to restore the engines to working condition.

Vivien Bellamy retired in 1994. Mary White (already on the staff) became Marketing and Education Manager, responsible for the 'front-of-house' and educational activities and Peter Boyd (previously Museums Officer in North Devon) was appointed Collections Manager to manage the curatorial functions of the museums. Mike Stokes was already in post as Museums Archaeologist.

In 1995, we celebrated the 160th Anniversary of the museum collections with a special exhibition and other events.

In 1999, Clive House Museum was closed as a result of budget cuts but it was retained for educational work, events and museum stores.

In the year 2000, a feasibility study was carried out regarding the possible redevelopment of Rowley's House to become the main Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery.

Also in 2000, one of a limited number of major government funded grants (IT Challenge Fund) was won for initiation and development of the Darwin Country website by Peter Boyd, working with local software engineers Orangeleaf Systems. This website allowed thousands of images of museum objects and information about them to be made accessible through the Internet.

In 2001, Clive House was sold and the collections were transferred to Rowley's House and rented accommodation at Dale House, one of Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust's buildings at Coalbrookdale.

Also in 2001, after seven years of dedicated work by the Shrewsbury Steam Trust, the first Cornish Boiler and Beam Engine were restored to working condition at Coleham Pumping Station - followed by the first public steaming for about 30 years.

In 2002, a second brief was drawn up for the development of a museum and tourist information centre facility at Rowley's including 'new build' adjacent to the building but, although this got to an advanced stage of design, it was considered too expensive and, in 2004, Shrewsbury & Atcham Council set up a Working Party to look at future of museums service.

In 2005, the SABC Cabinet agreed the principle of transferring the museum collections to the Music Hall when it had been vacated after the new theatre had been built. As of August 2008, the new Theatre Severn at Frankwell is nearing completion and is due to open in March 2009. The Tourist Information operation, currently at the Music Hall, will be transferred to Rowley's House in October 2008. Early in 2009, after the last production in the Music Hall, the refurbishment of the complex of buildings will commence to turn them into a new museum and visitor centre due to open in 2012.

The year 2009 will see the initiation of a major new phase in the history of Shrewsbury's Museums. The details are still being planned.

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Revised: March 15th 2010