Search This Blog

Friday, 24 June 2011

The History of Lyme Regis Museum

Lyme Regis Museum (seen above as it was circa 1980) has a fascinating history, which was described by its Director Mary Godwin in a talk at the Museum yesterday. The building itself dates from 1900-01, but for at least a hundred years prior to that the town boasted numerous private collections of fossils and curios, many of which were on public display. As early as 1811, on the very site of the Museum building, Mary Anning’s father had exhibited curios for sale, and his daughter later enlarged this collection into a spectacle of her finds which became famous, not only in Britain, but all across the continent, with visitors including crowned heads of Europe.

The majority of these early exhibits were commercially motivated, with the objects on display being offered for sale. However, in 1859, a collection went on show that was not for sale, but purely for the edification of the public. Consisting of fossils and other geological material, and including a 30ft ichthyosaurus, it was displayed at the Baths where it was open to the public daily by ticket. The same collection may also have been shown later at the Assembly Rooms.

In 1891, the then-mayor of Lyme, Thomas Philpot (a great nephew of the Philpot sisters who had been friends of Mary Anning) organized a temporary exhibition of local curios at the Guildhall, including pictures, engravings, coins and fossils. This exhibition was well received, and gave Philpot the idea of setting up a permanent museum. Although a museum was a must-have for all the great cities of the time, it was unheard of for a small town like Lyme... which only had a population of 2,000 when Philpot's museum was completed in 1901!

The architect selected by Thomas Philpot for the Museum was George Vialls, who had already designed a number of public buildings in Lyme. Philpot left it to Vialls to choose an appropriate style for the Museum. Vialls obviously had difficulty choosing, since the result was a bizarre mixture of Dutch renaissance, Jacobean and Art Nouveau!

Unfortunately, after its completion in 1901, the Museum stood empty for many years, due to a lack of public funding. For a few years during the First World War it served as a Red Cross depot, and was finally opened to the public as a museum in March 1921 -- thanks to the efforts of Dr Wyatt Wingrave, the museum’s first honorary curator. Wingrave virtually created the Museum single handed.

Sadly, this first incarnation of the Museum was short-lived. During the Second World War the building was converted into an ARP report post, with an air raid shelter in the cellar. After that, the building fell back into disuse until the 1960s, by which time its fabric was in a very poor state. Fortunately a group of people, led by the glass engraver Laurence Whistler, began to revive interest in the Museum. The picture on the left shows the state of the old East Wing in 1965; shortly after this it had to be demolished on safety grounds! Its utilitarian replacement was completed in 1969.

Between 1978 and 1988 the Museum's honorary curator was the novelist John Fowles, who transformed its fortunes by tapping into the massive growth of the tourism industry, as well as making best use of the energy and resources of local volunteers. Under Fowles's curatorship the displays and overall visitor experience were brought up to world-class standards -- but the building itself was still falling apart!

A massive renovation programme was begun in 1993, with the interior being completely stripped out and replaced. Soon after the work was completed in 1999, the Museum won the National Heritage NPI Museum of the Year award -- the predecessor of the prestigious Gulbenkian Prize!

To find out more about Lyme Regis Museum, visit the Museum website. If you're interested in attending one of the many excellent talks held at the Museum, see the Events page... or keep an eye on this blog!

No comments: