Manchester Museum Archive

Dr James Peters writes:

Special Collections has recently taken in the first consignment of the archive of Manchester Museum. The archive will be managed as part of the University archives, of which it constitutes an important addition.

The Museum has a long history, tracing its origins to the collections of the Manchester Natural History Society and the Manchester Geological Society. In 1868, these collections were transferred to Owens College, the forerunner of the University. In 1888, the Museum opened on its present site on Oxford Road, in a building designed by Alfred Waterhouse.

The Museum is recognized as one of the most important university museums in the UK. Its collections encompass zoology, botany, geology, Egyptology, anthropology, archaeology and numismatics.

The Museum’s archives include extensive material on its  collections, personnel and  buildings. Records include the correspondence files of successive heads of the Museum, an extensive cuttings collection and records of building projects and exhibitions. Also present are the surviving records of the Manchester Natural History Society (1821-68).

The archive includes an illuminating memorandum by the naturalist T.H. Huxley, who was consulted about the Museum’s design. Huxley wanted strict segregation between public and research spaces, as shown in this 1868 sketch of the Museum’s layout. Originally, following Huxley’s advice, the Museum had a strong academic focus, but over time, the benefits of public participation were also appreciated, and the Museum became a popular institution with the Manchester public.

Sketch by T.H. Huxley
Sketch by T.H. Huxley for the design of Manchester Museum, 1868.

One of the most interesting and unexpected components of the archive is a  collection of papers of the Victorian ethnologist Henry Ling Roth (1855-1925), which he gave to the Museum after the First World War. Ling Roth published studies of the peoples of Borneo and Benin, but is best known for The Tasmanian Aborigines (1890), for many years the standard study of the subject.

Ling Roth’s papers on the Tasmanian aborigines include correspondence  with the E.B. Tylor, the ‘father of British anthropology’,  and with the Tasmanian experts, James Backhouse Walker and John Watt Beattie, as well as the notebooks, drawing and photographs used in the preparation of this work.

The Museum’s archive will be of particular relevance to those interested in the history of museology, especially museum collecting and museums as public institutions.  However it also has a broader value for cultural and intellectual histories of Manchester and beyond.

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