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Leicester Special Collections


The role that societies play in their founding is strangely quiet when looking at academic debates. Yet, as we shall see, they play an important role in the establishing of many museums. 

Leicester Museums (New Walk)

Leicester Museum has its foundations within the Literary and Philosophical society. As seen in the Notification of the Founding of the Society in 1835, a museum was always a central aim of the society. In the Circular about the Establishment of the Museum, we see that there was a sense of civic pride in being a large town with a museum and it perfectly encompasses the Victorian ideal of self-improvement and education with their desire for ‘rational and healthy amusement, but an instructive lesson in every investigation of nature, and in every refinement of art’. [1] The third document gives a detailed history of how Leicester Museums, New Walk specifically, developed over its first 100 years.

Exhibitions Information Sheet, n.d.

Ulster Museum

Belfast museum began as an idea by the Belfast Natural History Society. It is the earliest museum founded within this resource. From 1825, it has developed slowly but surely to become its own institution. However, Ulster also has some underlying political influences connected to it. Not only did the name of the museum change from Belfast to Ulster when the government took control of it but this document also talks about the ‘paramount importance’ of setting up ‘organised National Collections’. It was around this time, 1968 and the Londonderry civil rights march, that the troubles in Northern Ireland began.

The troubles in Northern Ireland surrounded its constitutional status with the Unionist side arguing for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and the Nationalist side wanting Northern Ireland to be reunited with rest of Ireland in the south.[2] It began with protests against the discrimination of nationalist and catholic people but by 1972, the situation was so severe that the Northern Irish assembly was suspended, the British army brought in and direct rule from London was imposed.[3] After thirty years of violence and attempted peace processes, the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998 which brought peace to Northern Ireland and stated that any Irish unification would only occur in the majority of the population voted for it.[4]

It was during this time that the Ulster museum began to collect objects and artefacts that represented a nation. Do you think that the troubles influenced how the museum went about collecting and displaying objects and history?

A Guide to Canterbury Museums, n.d. 

Canterbury Museums (The Beaney)

Canterbury museum was established because of the desires of a society – the Canterbury Philosophical and Literary Institution. But it was only after the society rebranded itself did a museum become a key aim. So there is a slight difference between this example and the Literary and Philosophical Society in Leicester.

A Guide to Derby Museums and Art Gallery, n.d. 

Derby Museum and Art Gallery

The Derby Town and County Museum and Natural History Society was established by societies within Derby in 1836. The museum, however, was given to the city, out of the control of the society, like many other institutions.

Opening Ceremony Brochure, 1964

Doncaster Museum

The history of Doncaster Museum began with the Microscopic and General Scientific Society (now called the Doncaster Naturalists Union). They had develpoped a collection duriung the 19th century and by the 1880s, were asking for a permanent space in which to exhibit them. This was granted in 1899 when they were assigned the Doncaster Guildhall. As with other museums, the collection here grew and the museum was moved to Beechfield House to accomodate their own collection as well as the work of the Doncaster Art Club. Development of the museum continued until the moved had to be once more moved to a new building in 1964. The document above is the brochure from the opening ceremony of that event. [5]

An interesting question to consider is why did these societies set up museums? Was it, as the old school of academic thought would argue, to be ‘scientific’ or was it, as more current museological thoughts would argue, more to do with contemporary politics and the aims and interests of individuals?[6]

[1] 14D55-57-17, p. 1; Amy Woodson – Boulton, ‘Victorian Museums and Victorian Society’, History Compass, 6:1, (2008), p. 111. 

[2] BBC History, The Troubles, <> [accessed 14/8/2017]; Encyclopedia Britannica, Peace People, <> [accessed 14/8/2017].

[3] BBC History, The Troubles.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Laura Trinogga, Doncaster Museums, 2017. 

[6] Sheila Watson, The History of Museums, University of Leicester Lecture, (October 2016).