Museums Work

Museums Work

Cultivating the taste of the masses…

 

Nottingham Castle Museum opening

Many provincial museums have their origins in the activities of learned societies, but were clearly intended for the benefit of ‘the masses’. This was explicit in the Act of Parliament of 1845 which allowed local councils to levy a halfpenny rate to provide museums for the ‘Instruction and Amusement of the Inhabitants’, and in the Corporation of Nottingham’s address to the Prince and Princess of Wales on the opening of the Castle Museum and Art Gallery in 1878, which identified ‘the cultivation of the taste of the masses of the population of this Borough and the surrounding towns and counties’ as its primary objective.

The Castle had remained a ruin since 1831, when it was looted and damaged by rioters protesting against the Duke of Newcastle’s opposition to parliamentart reform. According to one history of it:

‘visitors to the town wended their way to it with curious interest, and the terrace, always a source of attraction, was paced with pleasure by many during the calm summer evenings. Occasionally in recent years a gala has drawn a flock of visitors to the grounds…’*

Its transformation into a museum and art gallery owed much to the association between the Nottingham School of Art, founded in 1843, and the South Kensington Museum - later the Victoria and Albert Museum – whose director Sir Henry Cole urged the Corporation to extend ‘the influence and advantages of further art education by the establishment of a Museum of Science  and Art, especially illustrative of those industries which have given to Nottingham the eminent position it holds among the great manufacturing centres of the United Kingdom’.

The Long Gallery

On the day of the official opening, the Prince and Princess were welcomed ‘with all the enthusiasm and varied demonstrations which usually characterise an English crowd when receiving personages so popular as the Royal visitors’. ‘Artistic decorations’ had been ‘spontaneously provided… with ungrudging liberality’  by the townspeople , including floral displays and a triumphal arch. They were met at the entrance to the town, near St. Andrew’s church, by the Mayor and Corporation in their robes, accompanied by the local Guilds, the Borough MPs and other dignitaries, and from there ‘an imposing and magnificent procession was formed, extending quite half a mile in length, escorted by squadrons of Her Majesty’s Lancers and the Yeoman Cavalry of the County’.  

This passed through the Market Place, where houses were hung with crimson cloth with ‘the windows and parapets throughout being thronged with spectators’. The Town Hall was also ‘decked in showy draperies, her roof and time ball minaret bristling with coloured flags’. On reaching the Castle grounds, ‘crowded with a vast assembly’, the Mayor presented the Prince of Wales with a ceremonial key with which he unlocked the door. Following an escorted tour by the Curator, Mr G.H. Wallis, and Castle Architect Thomas Chambers Hine, and a luncheon in a pavilion on the Castle lawn, the Prince declared the museum officially open. As the Corporation address to the royal visitors noted, few of the inhabitants of Nottingham had had an opportunity ‘of visiting the metropolis, or spending there sufficient time to enable them thoroughly to master the art treasures amassed in that [Sotuh Kensington] museum. The Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery was thus  ’an experiment which we trust will be crowned with complete success… the means of affording them the culture which they could obtain in no other way’.

* Thomas Chambers Hine, Nottingham, its Castle and art gallery: a military fortress, a ducal mansion, a blackened ruin, a museum and gallery of art (Unknown publisher, 1876; supplement 1879)

 
 

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