Dodos, Lewis Carroll and Polly Morgan: Inside Warrington's Cabinet of Curiosities

By Ben Miller | 04 February 2014

New Gallery: Cabinet of Curiosities, Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, Warrington

A photo of a series of colourful stuffed birds inside a gallery
Dozens of colourful birds star in Warrington's newest gallery© Culture Warrington
In 1855, when Warrington Museum’s foundation stone was laid, William Beamont declared that the Cheshire halls would hold “the wonders of nature and art, objects of curiosity and interest from the countries the most remote, and of ages the most diverse."

“The institution will hold out a general invitation to all to send hither whatever is curious in the realms of nature or of art, especially in connection with this neighbourhood,” he went on, speaking of a “rising institution” for “unborn generations” – “a just source of pride and satisfaction to every inhabitant of Warrington.”

Janice Hayes, the museum’s manager, exudes that pride in a place about which she imparts an incredible amount of knowledge. Hayes has worked there since 1977. “I can beat that,” she says. “I’ve got another member of staff who’s been here since 1964.”

Her newest responsibility, a permanent Cabinet of Curiosities display funded by a £672,500 Lottery grant, is the most ambitious project to have been overseen by the Warrington Cultural Trust which has run the museum since 2012.

But the exhibition's home – formerly a dark, cramped Bird Room with a false ceiling, hiding a stage and leaving wasted space in the middle, but home to an aviary of colourful birds and a menagerie of exotic animals – dates back to the Warrington School of Art of the late 19th century.

“We were founded by the council in 1848,” explains Hayes. “They’d have probably founded it earlier, but you had to be a borough.

“There was an Act of Parliament in 1845 which allowed local authorities to use something like ha’penny rate at the time to fund a public museum.

“But Warrington didn’t become a borough ‘til 1847. Sunderland and Leicester got in before them.

“There had already been a couple of independent attempts to run a museum in the town by the Natural History Society. If you think about it, that was still in the age when people believed in mermaids.”

One of the tutors from Warrington’s 18th century university had sailed with Captain Cook. Hayes believes the early audience was a mix of mermaid and freakshow fans and “learned people who were genuinely interested in the scientific exploration of the human body”.

“We were very much the area, initially, of the cabinet of curiosities. But later that century they displayed the museum on evolutionary lines.

“We had a number of guest curators, as they were called then. I love the fact that one of them said, ‘I became convinced of the theory of evolution when I went to have a chat with Darwin in his study.’ You can’t knock that one, can you?”

By the 1970s, the bird room’s “historic charm” and resident creatures had largely vanished. The ethnographic collection was redisplayed two years ago in what Hayes compares to a tightrope walk between removing its allure and purging old-fashioned labels which were “no longer in tune with the modern world”.

This particular Cabinet of Curiosities, she says, is not a freakshow, but conforms to the German understanding of a wunderkammer.

“So we have a mermaid in there, and a unicorn horn, but the context is how people collect.

“It is a bit of, ‘we’re a museum, this is what museums do’ – making people realise that they do the same kind of things, they collect things and try to explain them and put them in order."

The team worked with a new generation of honorary curators, including a Methodist minister and young people studying the last known English virginal to have been made. Commissions include a new work by in-demand taxidermist Polly Morgan.

“We’ve had quite a few artists who are new on the contemporary scene – not quite Banksy, but the next generation,” says Hayes.

“We want people to realise that this is a high-profile gallery again. It’s in Warrington town centre and there’s a lot going on in Warrington.

“Our collections are so diverse, every time even I can go in a gallery and realise ‘you know, I never noticed that before’.”

More than 80 preened birds, a large seal, a Victorian curator’s dog and a certain extinct bird, recreated in honour of a small boy once inspired by the collections, line a room bathed in the red-purplish tint of its original colour scheme.

“At the age of ten, little Lewis Carroll came to an exhibition at the early Warrington museum in 1840,” says Hayes, having seen the gallery open in time for Carroll’s birthday at the end of January.

“We probably gave him a lot of food for thought.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a remake of a study lined with a menagerie of exotic creatures
A giant anteater is among the exotic creatures© Culture Warrington
A photo showing a darkened museum case full of exotic creatures including a seal
The popular grey Woolston seal swam up the Mersey in 1908© Culture Warrington
A photo of a museum case filled with stuffed animals and exotic birds
Thousands of objects were packed up, relocated and logged onto the Museum's computer database at the end of 2012© Culture Warrington
A black and white photo of an ancient museum with cabinets stuffed full of birds
The Bird Room in 1907© Culture Warrington
A photo of a modern gallery with people milling around under bright lights
Snow and rain delayed one complex part of the rebuild until October 2012© Culture Warrington
A photo of an old museum gallery during the 1980s
Gallery 7 in 2011, before its transformation© Culture Warrington
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