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World Museum: A look back at the history of Liverpool’s oldest gallery

6 months ago

World Museum: A look back at the history of Liverpool’s oldest gallery
World Museum

This iconic institution has evolved over the years to become a cornerstone of the city’s heritage and a celebrated hub of learning.

It’s no surprise that with our city’s history and cultural richness that we are home to one of the great museums of the British regions. World Museum is a beacon of knowledge and exploration operated by National Museums Liverpool.

The Grade II listed building on William Brown Street, is a prime destination for locals and visitors to explore worlds gone by like, Ancient Egypt and the Jurassic Era, that provides fun and learning for all the family.

Let’s take a look back at how our incredible first museum came to be:

The Early Years

Credit: World Museum / NML
Credit: World Museum / NML

World Museum Liverpool originated as the Derby Museum of the Borough of Liverpool, born from the generous donation of the 13th Earl of Derby’s natural history collection, when he died in 1851.

The museum officially opened its doors on March 18, 1853. The town council arranged for the collection to be moved to a hastily built museum on the corner of Slater Street and Parr Street (where the cocktail bar Manolo is now), showcasing a fraction of the Earl’s collection, alongside paintings, models of Liverpool, and imports displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.

In 1857 the curator installed aquarium tanks in the museum – which was the second public aquarium in the world!

In response to the museum’s growing popularity, a larger venue was sought. William Brown, a prominent Liverpool figure, offered financial support, resulting in the construction of the current site on William Brown Street.

William Brown originally offered £6,000 for the building, but actually spent more than £20,000 on it.

The new neo-classical building, opened on October 18, 1860, and was named the Liverpool Free Public Museum, welcoming the public to experience it exactly one year later.

Credit: World Museum / NML
Credit: World Museum / NML

In 1884, the museum pioneered a groundbreaking schools-loan service – this was the first initiative of its kind in any museum. It circulated 16 boxes of exhibits to 64 schools during its inaugural year.

Further expansion occurred on October 19, 1906, when the museum extended through a new structure shared with the Liverpool Central Technical School.

This addition, comprised of two floors, featured extensive galleries, and it is currently housing the Bug House and World Cultures exhibits.

Interestingly, the present-day ground floor museum cafe served as the former examination hall for the Technical School.

Surviving WII

Credit: World Museum / NML

The museum faced a setback during World War II when it was heavily damaged in the May Blitz of 1941.

Rare and valuable items were evacuated for safety, but a devastating 500-pound bomb struck the library next door, engulfing the museum in flames.

It took 15 years to partially reopen the museum, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson opening the first phase of the rebuilt sections on March 25, 1966.

A Hub for Learning

National Museums Liverpool
Credit: Pete Carr

In the subsequent years, World Museum continued to push boundaries.

The UK’s first planetarium outside London opened in 1970, while the groundbreaking Natural History Centre, the first hands-on centre in a museum, welcomed visitors in 1987.

The museum was nationalised in 1986 under the new organisation, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.

A New Era: World Museum Liverpool

The museum underwent a transformative phase on April 29, 2005, as it was rebranded World Museum.

This evolution brought forth a new aquarium, refurbished galleries, and a fresh entrance, solidifying its status as a dynamic and family-friendly cultural destination.

Present and Beyond

Today, World Museum Liverpool stands as a testament to Liverpool’s enduring commitment to education, innovation, and cultural celebration. Renowned for its exceptional collections and family-friendly experiences, the museum continues to draw visitors from across the UK.

As we traverse through the halls of World Museum Liverpool, we embark on a journey through time, witnessing the resilience, innovation, and cultural wealth that define this iconic institution.

From its humble beginnings to its present-day glory, the museum remains an integral part of Liverpool’s cultural tapestry, inviting generations to explore, learn, and be inspired… even now almost 164 years later.

For more info on World Museum click HERE. For the latest news in Liverpool click HERE.

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