Ipswich Museum moved into its current home, a purpose-built museum on High Street, in 1881. It holds exceptional geological and entomological (insect) collections as well as rare Victorian taxidermy dioramas. The museum interior still contains many authentic Victorian features, which are part of the original vision that is celebrated by visitors and staff at the Ipswich Museum.
The Victorian Natural History Gallery, its balcony and the Bass Rock diorama are amongst the most significant displays in the museum. Some of their iconic objects, such as the rhino and giraffe, have become symbols of Ipswich. These galleries are important parts of the building’s heritage and the original Victorian atmosphere of the Natural History Gallery will be retained and enhanced as part of the redevelopment.
Ipswich Museum was originally based in Museum Street, and first opened in 1847. The building was designed by Ipswich architect Christopher Fleury. The first brick was laid on the 1st March 1847 and the Museum was opened in the same year on 15th December. The Museum remained in Museum Street until 1881, when it moved to its current location in High Street. The building which once housed the Museum’s collections is now home to the Arlingtons restaurant.
Following the death of the Museum’s first president Reverend William Kirby, Reverend Professor John Stevens Henslow took on the role of president.
He studied and taught at Cambridge University and one of his students was Charles Darwin. Henslow helped in the founding of Ipswich Museum and made visits to give lectures. He gave one in 1849 on geology, which featured some coral ‘received from Mr. Darwin’ to help illustrate his talk. It was actually Henslow who had sent Darwin on the expedition upon HMS Beagle where he had first begun to form some of his revolutionary theories on natural history and the mechanisms of natural selection.
Henslow played a significant role in making the Museum a model of its kind. This portrait was displayed on the wall of the main staircase in Ipswich Museum.
An impressive diorama to display big cats was built at the end of the Central Gallery in 1850-51. The background was painted to represent a mountain and desert scene in Africa by the acclaimed Ipswich artist E. R. Smythe.
When the High Street Museum was built, the original case was brought from Museum Street and built into the end of the Natural History Gallery. There were some alterations to the case over the years, including the addition of new animals in 1906.
His Royal Highness Prince Albert visited the Museum in 1851, and in so doing greatly enhanced its already enviable reputation and status.
Hon. Secretary Mr George Ransome visited Buckingham Palace in February 1851 and His Royal Highness Prince Albert became a patron of Ipswich Museum soon afterwards. The Prince visited the Museum on Friday 4 July of the same year during the Ipswich meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Only one admission ticket to the event was available per member, which excluded members’ spouses. Many ladies became members themselves, or persuaded husbands, fathers and brothers to transfer their tickets to them for a chance to see the Prince.
After inspecting the contents of the cases, the royal visitor had lunch in the Museum library. The Museum must have made a deep impression on Prince Albert, for Queen Victoria stated that the several days after his return he talked of scarcely anything else.
Unfortunately, the Museum faced financial difficulties. As the novelty of the Museum wore off, subscriptions dropped, and it was no longer possible to run the museum on private income.
However, under the Public Libraries Act 1850, the Museum could be supported from the rates, but only if two-thirds of the ratepayers agreed. On Friday 4th February 1853, the people of Ipswich went to the polling booths and the support for saving the Museum was overwhelming; 709 for and only 69 against. Ipswich Museum would now be owned by the people of Ipswich and became one of the very first to be supported by a borough rate.
The Museum re-opened under its new management on Monday 6th June 1853 with free admission for all visitors.
It was decided not to renew the lease on the building in Museum Street, but instead create a new purpose-built Museum. A site for the new Museum, Library and Schools of Science and Art was found in 1878. The new building was opened by the mayor of Ipswich, Alfred Wrinch, on 27 July 1881. The cases and their contents had been transferred from the building in Museum Street and the new galleries looked much like the original ones. For the first few days after opening, a thousand people a day visited the new Museum.
The new Lock gate at the Dock and the Post Office on the Cornhill opened on the same day, making it a significant date in the history of Ipswich.
Numerous specimens continued to be presented to the Museum after it opened in the new building, including a case of gorillas. They were shot around 1862 by the French explorer M. Paul du Chaillu in the Gaboon (Gabon), Africa, and were the first specimens ever brought to England. They were acquired by Dr Edwards Crisp of London for his private collection. Dr Crisp was from Suffolk and upon his death his family presented the gorillas to Ipswich Museum. They were renovated and placed in a new case in 1907.
A single storey extension joining the Museum to the Picture Gallery of the Ipswich Fine Art Club was opened on 21 June 1887. The new Victoria Free Lending Library was built to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, whose likeness can still be seen above the door.
A two storey West Wing overlooking St George’s Street was built on to the rear of the Museum in 1901. The new wing provided space for the Reference Library on the ground floor, and a room for British birds on the upper floor. The Library remained within the Museum until it moved to Northgate Street in 1924. The Reference Library area of the Museum became the Suffolk Geology Gallery.
Nina Frances Layard (1853 – 1935) was a pioneering Suffolk and Ipswich female archaeologist, whose work in and around Ipswich contributed significantly to the Museum’s archaeological collections during this period. She was a founder and first woman president (in 1921) of the Prehistoric Society of East Anglia, one of the first four women admitted as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and an early female Fellow of the Linnean Society.
Among her greatest contributions were the discovery, excavation and recording in 1902-5 of a Palaeolithic (old stone age) site – over 300,000 years old – at Foxhall Road, Ipswich, finding hundreds of flint tools made by early humans. She subsequently excavated important Anglo-Saxon cemetery sites including Hadleigh Road, Ipswich, finding many of the Anglo-Saxon jewellery and other items which form a major part of the Museum’s important Anglo-Saxon collections. Although Nina Layard did not get on with the Museum’s then Curator, Frank Woolnough, she was able to display many of her finds in cases at Christchurch Mansion during her lifetime and donated the majority of her collection to the Museum in 1920.
The Bass Rock case was built as a feature in the new bird gallery in 1903 thanks to a legacy left by the late Lord John Harvey.
Mr Edward Packard, Chairman of the Museum Committee, and Curator Frank Woolnough, visited the famous Bass Rock gannet colony in the Firth of Forth to make sketches and take photographs. Based on their observations, an accurate reconstruction of part of the Rock was made using over two tons of plaster of Paris. Many of the birds (gannets, razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins) were shot for the case during their visit to the Rock.
The plaster at the back of the Bass Rock case has been signed by many staff over the years. Some of the signatures date back to early part of 20th Century.
Rosie the Rhino has greeted visitors to Ipswich Museum’s Victorian Natural History Gallery for many years, and arrived in Ipswich on the 15th March 1907. Measuring in at nearly 12 feet in girth and 6 feet 6 inches high, it took ten men about two hours to ease the Indian Rhinoceros into the gallery. She came from the Natural History Museum and cost the Museum £16 and the swap of a “rather rare pig”.
The giraffe, who has looked down over the Victorian Natural History Gallery for more than a hundred years, was transported to Ipswich Museum from London by train in 1909. At 16 feet and 10 inches tall, the giraffe’s height proved a challenge as it had to pass under a low bridge only 13 feet high on its journey. The animal was propped, leaning forward, on the lowest available truck and wrapped in canvas. An inspector was sent with the giraffe and it was suggested that he travel jockey style on its neck, but he successfully pleaded ‘age, weight and lack of training’.
The giraffe was lent to Ipswich Museum by Mr. John Hall of Altrincham, who also paid for the impressive glass case that houses it due to its rarity and value. The case was built on the premises and it is said that the glaziers insisted that the Museum was closed while work was in progress so as not to reveal any trade secrets to competitors.
In 1918, Mrs May Ogilvie, in accordance with the wishes of her late husband Fergus Menteith Ogilvie, presented his renowned collection of British mounted birds to the Museum. She wrote to the Curator on 9 December 1918.
“I am very glad to be able to offer the collection to the Ipswich Museum, as I know it would be my dear husband’s wish that they should go there. He always told me that he intended one day to offer them to the County of Suffolk, and he suggested Ipswich as the best place for them.”
It was such an important acquisition that the whole of the ‘Bird Room’ was re-organised to hold the collection. The last case was installed on 11 April 1918 and the gallery was thereafter known as the ‘Ogilvie Bird Gallery’.
The collection has considerable significance as an exceptional collection of taxidermy in naturalistic settings. Ogilvie’s aim was to create a collection that would show how birds looked in the wild. He commissioned the naturalist Thomas Edward Gunn to taxidermy and build cases based on drawings of where Ogilvie had seen the birds. Many of the specimens are from the Ogilvie estate at Sizewell on the Suffolk coast, adjacent to the Minsmere RSPB reserve.
Basil Brown, who conducted archaeological work for Ipswich Museum, was released for a time to work for Mrs Pretty at Sutton Hoo to examine and excavate the burial mounds on her land. Finds from the smaller mound 2, excavated in 1938, came to Ipswich Museum, though the spectacular finds from the major Anglo-Saxon Ship Burial, excavated in 1939, went to the British Museum.
During World War II, staff grew tomatoes in the space above the Natural History Gallery. The gallery has a void and a glass roof to let in natural light, which has now been covered to stop light fading the objects, but during the Second World War the void would have acted like a green house.
The Romans 1 gallery was installed at Ipswich Museum in the early 80s and was later followed by the Romans 2 gallery in 1989. The galleries used recreated scenes to illustrate Roman life in Suffolk. The Romans 2 gallery was later replaced with a new Egyptian gallery in 2010.
The Natural History Gallery was restored in 1990 to recreate the Victorian Natural History Gallery, capturing the atmosphere of the Gallery at the time when the exhibits were new and their arrangement reflected Darwin’s then controversial Theory of Evolution. The Victorian Natural History Gallery was opened by the Worshipful Mayor of Ipswich, Councillor Sheila Baguley on 26 April 1990.
One of Ipswich Museum’s most famous residents is the woolly mammoth which has delighted visitors of all ages for a number of years. The model was built in 1992 by two specialist natural history conservators and was constructed from a scaffold frame consisting of steel supported with plywood boards and then covered in wire mesh, metal bands and a fibreglass shell. Styrofoam was used to sculpt the head, legs and trunk. The realistic hair used to bring the model to life was sourced from a Hollywood model making company. On 16 November 1992, the first visitors met the new mammoth model.
The Hoxne Treasure was found in Suffolk in 1992. The Roman hoard consisted of 14,870 coins and 200 objects. Many of the items were exhibited in Ipswich Museum – the only exhibition of the hoard to take place outside London – from 1994-1995 on loan from the British Museum. The coin hoard was the largest found anywhere within the Roman Empire. The coins date the burial of the hoard to sometime after A.D. 407, during the period the Romans abandoned control of Britain.
The exhibition generated significant interest, and people queued around the block to see the hoard on display in Ipswich.
In 2010, a new Egyptian Gallery opened at Ipswich Museum. A temporary exhibition in the High Street Exhibition Gallery entitled “From the Mummy’s Tomb” was so successful, it was decided to create a permanent exhibit.
The new gallery was designed specifically to meet the needs of school children, providing a bright and interactive space in which to learn. It was designed in a colourful and accessible form and centred around a recreation of a pharaoh’s tomb with a real Ancient Egyptian mummy.