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How Manchester Museum joined arguing societies together

The geological section of Manchester Museum in 1895
The geological and natural history sections of the museum were placed apart

Dr Leucha Veneer
Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine
University of Manchester

Hundreds of visitors every year are enthralled by the natural collections held in the Manchester Museum.

But where did they come from?

Some of these specimens have been in Manchester for nearly 200 years now, and were originally collected by nineteenth-century scientists.

Science in Regency and Victorian times was very different from today.

There were few professionals, and people with scientific interests formed small societies.

Manchester Natural History Museum in 1865
The Natural History Museum was near St Peter's Square

The Manchester Natural History Society was founded in 1821, and held meetings where members discussed their latest work.

In 1835, the society completed the building of its museum on Peter Street.

This was an impressive building, with a pillared facade, a grand entrance hall and a gallery upstairs.

Unfortunately it no longer exists, but it stood where Museum Street now runs.

This society was not broad enough for all naturalists, however, and in 1838 the Manchester Geological Society was formed.

It too began to collect specimens from the beginning, and the jewel of its collections was an ichthyosaurus from Whitby.

Coming together

The two societies did not find life easy, and in the early 1850s pooled their resources and combined their collections.

Problems soon arose between them, though: the Natural History Society charged a penny for admission, but the Geological Society wanted its collections to be available for free.

Manchester Museum and Owen's College in 1890
Manchester Museum has housed the collections for over a century

A compromise was reached, and visitors could go to the geological rooms without paying.

In 1859, however, the Natural History Society introduced an umbrella stand, and any visitor with a stick or umbrella had to leave it for a charge of one penny.

The geologists saw this as a sneaky way to make their visitors pay and were furious!

In the end, they had to agree to have their own umbrella stand in their part of the museum.

This was not only difficulty that the societies faced in maintaining the collections, and in 1868 the specimens came under the control of Owens College.

They were housed in its new museum building on Oxford Road in the 1880s and remain part of the Manchester Museum to this day.

A talk called ' Arguments and umbrella stands ' took place at Manchester Museum as part of Manchester Science Festival 2010

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