The University of Manchester and Manchester Museum

An index to this series appears on the first post.

Today, it seems that any major city should offer its own university, but that was not always true. Today, it seems obvious that a city should offer a variety of museums to host school groups and tourists, but that, too, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Just how did the University of Manchester and its associated Manchester Museum come about?

A University through Union

This former Medical School building is not the first home of medical training in Manchester, since it only opened in 1874!

The 1820s were a time of rapid growth for Manchester. The first national census in 1801 determined that the city had 78,727 inhabitants, but that number had almost doubled to 142,000 by the time of the 1831 census. “It should be remembered that for about 700 years there had been only two universities in England, devoted largely to the production of clerics and, later, administrators” [Walsh 1996]. In the space of a single year, though, two different seeds of change sprouted in Manchester. During 1824, both the Manchester School of Medicine and Manchester Mechanics’ Institution began operations, trying to bring advanced training within the reach of middle-class families. Durham University and the University of London were established in 1832 and 1836, respectively. In 1846, a bequest for educational purposes by textile merchant John Owens brought £96,654 to the cause of establishing a college at Manchester, and the Owens College was launched formally in 1851. “Owens did not have powers to grant degrees, but a Royal Warrant permitted the College to award certificates to qualify students to take the degrees of the University of London” [from Owens College Archive]. The (now Royal) Manchester School of Medicine joined Owens College in 1872.

The John Owens building on the Oxford Road campus once housed almost all the classes of Owens College.

Gaining university standing was quite a challenge for the colleges of northern England; the universities near London naturally enjoyed having exclusive right to this title. Yorkshire College in Leeds and Owens College at Manchester stepped on each other’s feet to become the first university in the north. In the end, a federated Victoria University was created in 1880 at Manchester, with partner colleges at University College Liverpool (1884) and Yorkshire College at Leeds (1887) joining soon thereafter. This structure of a single university with three campuses was an uneasy arrangement, and when Liverpool began adding specialized programs such as the School of Tropical Medicine, the other colleges within Victoria University were slow to approve. In 1902, this conflict boiled over, and Liverpool applied for the right to be a university in its own right. Manchester declared that if Liverpool were granted the right to be a university, it should, as well. (This is quite similar to the way that the college at Stellenbosch acquired university status at the same time as the college at Cape Town.) In 1903, both of these colleges were granted independent university status, and the Yorkshire College at Leeds was invited to request the same standing.

Even the Student Service Centre of the U-Manchester campus is beautiful!
The Sackville Street Building, opened in 1902, was the mainstay of UMIST for a century.

The 1824 Manchester Mechanics’ Institute, now operating as the Manchester Municipal School of Technology, entered an agreement in 1905 to serve as the Faculty of Technology of the Victoria University of Manchester. The faculty’s name continued to drift substantially until receiving a royal charter in 1966 as the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology or UMIST. In 1994, changes in the law made UMIST a separate university, but it opted for complete merger with the Victoria University of Manchester in 2004 to form today’s University of Manchester.

The Renold Building, constructed in 1962, was part of a UMIST campus expansion in that era.

From collector to society to university

In the late Enlightenment, well-to-do English people often sought to demonstrate their refinement through the collection of rare items, whether fine art or insects. At the time, the boundaries between geology and entomology were somewhat less rigid, and so a fair number of these collections sprawled to a wide variety of exhibits. John Leigh Philips (1761-1814) was a partner in the family business, spinning cotton and silk. At his death, the Philips collection included three mahogany cabinets just to hold his insect collection, along with a substantial number of artworks. Religious dissenters had formed a nucleus of learning in Manchester, and a merchant from their ranks purchased the collection at auction. Intellectual societies had developed in many major cities, and Manchester was home to one of the largest, the “Lit and Phil” (The Manchester Literary and Philosophy Society, founded in 1781). The Lit and Phil declined to purchase the Philips collection when it was offered to them in 1821; instead, a few of its interested members banded together to form the “Manchester Society for the Promotion of Natural History” in order to buy the collection and display it for a broader audience.

“Possessing a bunch of stuff” is not the same thing as “running a modern museum.” The Philips collection and additions surfed from location to location at first, but then the Society was able in 1835 to construct a purpose-built museum facility on Peter Street in the center of Manchester after raising significant funds for that purpose. This museum, however, was not open to the public but rather limited to part-owners of the collection, substantial contributors of funds, and members of partner societies. Enjoyment of the museum became broader as students and staff of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institution were allowed entry. Eventually museums needed to subsist on entry fees as the societies lost senior members. By 1860s, the building and upkeep costs from the museum had left the Society in bad condition, and civic corporations were unwilling to take on the museum and its mission. In 1868, the Society dissolved itself, having transferred the museum and its contents to Owens College, soon to become part of Victoria University. Many of the “curiosities” in the collection were sold at auction at this time. The Manchester Museum facility on Oxford Road finally opened its doors to the public in 1888, twenty years after the Society had closed down its predecessor.

A college home on Oxford Road

The Manchester Museum begins at that grand entrance and extends through that first vaulted ceiling, extending away from the camera. The baroque bit closer to the camera now offers a ground-floor cafe.

Alfred Waterhouse had already developed a brilliant reputation as an Manchester architect in 1873; his Neo-Gothic town hall for the city had begun construction five years earlier. Owens College turned to him to craft its campus on Oxford Road, running south from downtown. His answer produced an original campus quadrangle that is truly striking to the eye. The Manchester Museum building was added to the quadrangle starting in 1882, forming its northeast corner (at a total cost of £95,000). The last 130 years since the Museum opened its Oxford Road building have hardly been static for the facility. A 2009 book by Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (author of several of the citations I’ve read above) discusses how the various disciplines under the museum (geography, ethnography, or ornithology, to name a few) and the objects associated with them have evolved over the years.

The quad behind the facade is a lovely place to relax. Here’s Simon, the M.Sc. student I get to work with through DARA.

During my visit to the Manchester Museum, substantial renovations were underway. I was really grateful for the chance to visit its original gallery, though. I particularly liked the skeleton of a sperm whale, suspended from the ceiling. The animal washed ashore in Massachusetts in 1896 and was purchased for the museum at a cost of $300.

I was not the only American in the museum!

In 1922, a nearly-complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurs Rex was uncovered in South Dakota. A cast of the fossils has been arranged to show the creature running, and it’s a very dynamic component to the floor of the gallery. I was grateful for the opportunity to show him to Simon, the graduate student I visited in Manchester!

“Stan” guards the floor of the main gallery.

2 thoughts on “The University of Manchester and Manchester Museum

  1. Pingback: Manchester: “Cottonopolis” and Peterloo | Picking Up The Tabb

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