January 25th saw the long awaited public opening of Warrington Museum’s Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery. The Museum began working on the CofC project back in 2007 when we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the opening of this building. It was a key moment to raise the profile of one of the earliest public museums in the country and crucially to refocus it for the 21st Century.

 This exciting project is all thanks to a grant of £672, 500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to turn Warrington Museum’s Gallery 7 (the old Bird Room) into an exciting new space to showcase some of the bizarre and wonderful items in the Museum’s collections and involve local people in creating the new displays.

 Behind the scenes the museum team were busy making the final selection of objects for the new displays to create the atmosphere of a traditional Cabinet of Curiosities

 Over 80 colourful birds and other taxidermy items have been primped and preened by specialist natural history conservators ready for their starring role. They are displayed alongside old favourites such as the Woolston seal and more exotic creatures like the giant anteater in a new interpretation of the old gallery’s menagerie. 

 There is a Victorian curator’s study display including one of the museum’s oldest pieces of taxidermy, Mr Edelsten’s dog, who is resplendent on his velvet cushion whilst Warrington’s rugby league fans will be pleased to know that the museum’s wolf has made a welcome come back just in time for the new season.

 A large cabinet showcases an array of amazing Victorian cased taxidermy dioramas which haven’t been seen for many years………….and one interloper, a recreation of a Dodo. This extinct bird was recreated as a tribute to famous Warrington author. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, (better known as Lewis Carroll,) who visited an early Museum exhibition in Warrington Market Place in 1840. His curiosity was undoubtedly aroused by many of the specimens of Warrington’s Natural History Society on show. Perhaps they even inspired many of the author’s fantastic creatures such as the fearsome Jabberwock or Alice’s meeting with the legendary Dodo?

 As well as natural history specimens the gallery features a fascinating mix of items from the museum’s collections such as the Woolston gibbet iron, sculpture, ceramics including the elaborate Meissen parrot vase and a piece specially created for the gallery by leading contemporary artist Polly Morgan.  The purpose designed Cabinet of Curiosity cupboards and drawers feature a range of curious and exciting specimens to inspire and excite visitors.

The rare 17th century musical instrument called a virginal has been restored and features in its own display case.  A repertoire of music from the period has been played on it and is available as a sound-bite in the new gallery together with new compositions created by young local musicians taking part in an associated community project. A series of films featuring items in the collections have been commissioned from the Creative Remedies group based at the Pyramid Arts Centre and are shown as part of a series of film presentations.  Last but not least, the room’s original purpose as a School of Art in the 1870’s is highlighted through the work of past students including Ossie Clarke.

 The honorary curators have been working hard all year on projects relating to the collections and other aspects of the museum’s work.  The results are shown in the large central cabinet, alongside items from the collections which have inspired them.  The projects are very varied and include textiles, items from J T Clarke’s hardware shop, objects inspired by the Maori collections, women’s history related material and projects in the local community as well as botanical specimens and reflections on the links between the collections and the natural world.


For more updates see the museum website  www.warringtonmuseum.co.uk  and follow the museum’s reporter Meadow Pipit at  twitter.com/meadowpipit7

The old Bird Room in was a dark and cramped space with a false ceiling, outdated display cases and lots of wasted space in the middle of the room around a hidden light well which had been cut into the floor when alterations were made to the library below in the 1930s. All of this hid one of the best spaces in the original museum dating from 1857 and the stage once used by the School of Art.

Why is it called the Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery?

One of Warrington Museum’s unique assets which visitors and heritage experts value is its links to an earlier time before the internet and globalisation when individuals collected quirky treasures which linked them to ancient times, remote cultures and the wonders of the natural world. Wealthier individuals kept their treasures hidden from view in ornate cabinets only allowing a privileged few to see behind the doors or inside the secret drawers.

 Warrington Museum’s new Cabinet of Curiosities will respect this tradition but also reflects an alternative definition of a Cabinet of Curiosities as a Wunderkammer or chamber of wonders rather than the merely bizarre.

 What did the work entail?

  • From August-December 2012 Gallery 7 and two rooms on the floor below were emptied and thousands of objects packed up, relocated and logged onto the Museum’s computer database.
  • By January 2013 all the old display cases had been ripped out uncovering the original purplish-red cover of the original room which has been used as the basis for the colour scheme of the new gallery.
  • In February the large structure concealing the light well was demolished and new sturdy iron beams inserted into the store room below. The large hole in the room was floored over and the false ceiling was partially opened up.
  • Now work could begin on opening up the lantern light which hadn’t been seen since the mid 1960s. A gigantic scaffolding tower was built inside the room. Even more scaffolding was built around the structure outside on the roof….then it snowed and rained …and unfortunately more repair work was needed so this tricky part of the scheme took longer than planned and completion of the construction phase was delayed until October 2013.
  • From August Museum staff began to unpack items from their temporary stores and also created a new display called a Walk Down Memory Lane  in Gallery 5 which takes a nostalgic look at objects from daily life in Warrington from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilees.