Originally opened in 1849 as ‘New Walk Museum’, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery is recognised as one of the United Kingdom's first council-run, public museums.
The iconic building itself is a neo-classical style by York-born architect Joseph Hansom (also of horse-drawn Hansom cab fame, thanks to his patent for its design). Designed in 1836, the building was initially intended as a non-conformist school, but by 1848 had been sold to the Leicester Corporation.
The purchase of the building by the Leicester Corporation was a response to the Museum Act of 1845; legislation which gave towns with a population greater than 10,000 the power to establish museums. The government believed that opening such cultural spaces would entice the working classes to spend their free time in activities considered more appropriate than the stereotypes of drinking and fighting. As such, the Leicester Corporation established New Walk Museum, with Leicester's Literary and Philosophical Society donating around 10,000 objects and contributing to an extension in 1873. The reason for the Society's involvement is that they, like the government, believed the museum would help in soothing the political and religious agitation within the city. They hoped that with the museum now on the public’s doorstep, citizens would flock to see beautiful artwork, interesting history displays, and mind-blowing scientific discoveries.
The museum is probably most popular for its scientific displays; an aspect encouraged by one of Leicestershire's most prominent 19th century businessmen, Thomas Cook, who hoped the museum would result in being “an instructive lounge for the lovers of science.” Indeed it did, and the museum became hugely popular quite quickly. In fact, another of Leicestershire's home-town heroes, natural historian, television presenter of 70 years, and ‘national treasure’ Sir David Attenborough, realised the importance of the museum very early on. As a child in the 1930s, Attenborough would take fossils he'd found in his local area to the museum for inspection. He later said that “the influence of this museum had a profound effect on my career.”
The Dinosaur Gallery is undoubtedly the most sought out amongst young visitors, largely due to the enormous 49ft Cetiosaurus skeleton in the centre of the room. This specimen - known as the Rutland Dinosaur, or more fondly ‘George’ - was discovered in Little Casterto in Rutland in the summer of 1968. It's known to be one of the most complete sauropod skeletons of its kind in the world, although some of its bones are kept behind the scenes due to their fragility. Near to George are the skeletal remains of another dinosaur, a marine Plesiosaurus known as the Barrow Kipper due to it being discovered in the Leicestershire village of Barrow-upon-Soar in 1851.
Surrounding the dinosaurs are other scientific curiosities including various fossils. There is also a shard of the Barwell Meteorite which fell on the Leicestershire village of Barwell on Christmas Eve 1965. It is still considered to be one of the largest meteorite falls in the recorded history of the country, and is estimated at 4.5 billion-years-old.
Another permanent exhibit popular with visitors is the Egyptology section. Featuring a vast collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts, including canopic jars, fragments of the Book of the Dead, and several mummies, it's understandable as to why this particular area is considered a favourite.
The collection focuses on life and death within Ancient Egypt, and has a section entirely focussed on the beliefs, customs and traditions which surrounded the subject. Within this area are four mummies named Bes-en-Mut, Ta-Bes, Pe-Iuy and Pa-Nesit-Tawy. The first two were siblings who lived during the 7th century BC, and it’s believed that Bes-en-Mut was a priest at the Temple of Min, while Ta-Bes was a chantress or musician. Both lived in the Ancient Egyptian city of Panopolis (known today as Akhmim), and it's likely that both died after drinking contaminated water. Their mummies were gifted to the museum by John Cook, son of the aforementioned Thomas Cook, and his wife.
Other permanent collections and exhibits within the museum include a Victorian art gallery, as well as the country's largest collection of German Expressionist artwork. There is also a ‘Wild Space’ display, featuring preserved marine life and taxidermy animals, including a polar bear affectionately known as ‘Peppy’.
Location: 53 New Walk, Leicester, LE1 7EA
Admission: free, although a donation of £3 is suggested. Tickets may need to be booked in advance.
Opening Hours: 11am - 4:30pm weekdays and 5pm weekends
Covid-specific information: at time of writing (February 2021) the museum is closed until further notice. More information about this and FAQs are available here.
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Hils Bradford runs a history Instagram called @HistoricHils where she posts about historic buildings interesting statues, and gravestones, as well as history-based books on Sundays. She started the account in December 2019, and has since been featured in an online history magazine and on her local radio station. She graduated from university in 2017 with a BA (Hons) in history, and is currently volunteering at her local museum, Harborough Museum. You can also find Hils on Twitter @HistoricHils.