Celebrating 150 years of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Published Friday 7 June 2024 at 16:18

As Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery celebrates its 150th anniversary, we take a look at how the magnificent wrought iron gates came to open for the very first time on June 11th 1874.

June 11th will mark 150 years of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Interestingly, it was one of the very first purpose-built free museums to open outside of London.

And, as such, the laying of its cornerstone in 1872 was a grand affair filled with ‘pride and pomp.’

“At three in the afternoon, the celebrations began,” an extract from ‘Notes on the planning and construction of Blackburn’s Free Library, Museum & Art Gallery reads. “Anyone who was anyone in the town was involved.”

However, while it was a day of real celebration, reports suggest that getting to that point had been ‘fraught’ with a ‘wrangle’ over where the much-anticipated museum should be built.

The committee leading the project was determined it should be on a plot of land off Richmond Terrace, but the notes say that the Council at the time ‘had other ideas.’ In the end though, Committee Chairman, James Thompson, argued so ‘ably’ in favour of the site that ‘no one could oppose him.’

And, so, the 1,023 square yard plot was purchased for a grand total of £1,120 and a competition was quickly launched to find a design – a cheap way back then of inspecting a wide range of ideas and interpretations for free.

In total, 38 entries were submitted with the eminent London Architect Mr (later Sir) Alfred Waterhouse judging ‘Knowledge is Power’ by Messrs Woodzsell and Collcoutt of Finsbury Place as the ultimate winner.

Work started soon after, and on the day of the laying of the cornerstone, the plans for the new building were officially handed over. A copy was carefully placed in a cavity behind it, along with invitations, a glass tube containing a scroll of vellum bearing a hand-written account of the history of the library up to that time, and more.

The construction of the impressive building was undertaken by Messrs Marshall and Dent of Blackburn and the final bill for the works came in at £8,424. 

The cost was somewhat of a bugbear to some residents who ‘grumbled’ at the ‘small sum’ they would be asked to contribute towards for the ‘institution for the development of the mind.’ 

But, as you’ll see from the Arte et Labore exhibition – proudly on display today – that was more important than ever, with a growing need for better educated people. Back then, children in the town left school at just 10 years old to work in the many mills.

Indeed, as well as the focus on education, it’s believed the very need and desire for a library and museum was to keep the mill workers entertained and out of the pubs!

And, such was its popularity, that it was soon extended too and, in the 1970s, Blackburn Library moved to Town Hall Street to provide even more space.

Today, visitors can enjoy an impressive collection of important art, a fascinating Egyptian gallery and a wealth of items relating to social and natural history.

It’s also a key venue for the National Festival of Making, the British Textile Biennial and popular events, including Night at the Museum.

It’s still very much free to enjoy too!

Find out more now by clicking this link: www.blackburnmuseum.org.uk

And, for more on the 150 year celebrations, follow the Museum on Facebook,  Instagram and X using #BMAAG150

The museum, in Museum Street, is open Tuesday to Saturday 11am to 4:45PM.

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