On 20 April 1868, a new museum opened in Exeter, known then as the 'Albert Memorial Museum, School of Art and Science and Free Library'. 150 years later the museum has seen many changes but it is still going strong.
RAMM's earliest beginnings
The origins of RAMM can be dated to 1813, when the Devon and Exeter Institution opened, with the aim of ‘promoting the general diffusion of Science, Literature and Art, and …. illustrating the Natural and Civic History of the County of Devon and the City of Exeter’. The institution started to gather together artefacts and specimens fit for this purpose.
A Memorial Museum for Exeter
When the Prince Albert died in 1861 Sir Stafford Northcote proposed that a memorial to him should be established in Exeter. A meeting the following year created the blueprint for the Devon and Exeter Albert Memorial Institution. This was to be a building housing a museum and art gallery, a free public library, a school of art and a mechanics institute.
An architectural competition to design the new building was won by John Hayward, an important figure in the Gothic Revival school in the south-west. The design was strongly influenced by architects Deane and Woodward, and the Early English architectural style of the 13th century. It was ornamented by large arched windows with tracery, smaller trefoil-headed windows and a rose window of almost cathedral-like proportions.
6 years before the museum opened the committee sent out a letter asking for donations. The public subscription totalled around £15,000. This was no mean effort given the fact that Exeter, unlike the great industrial cities of northern England, could not rely on immensely wealthy and philanthropic benefactors.
This drawing by the Victorian architect John Pinn shows the museum as it looked on completion in 1869. In subsequent decades extensions were added to the rear of the building, the most significant being the York wing on Upper Paul Street.
The poem by James Bridger Goodrich describes Prince Albert as England’s pride, and praises his commitment to museums and education. This is one of at least two poems written to celebrate the museum's opening.
Newspaper article about RAMM's Grand Opening Parade.
Ticket for RAMM from 1868, the year that the museum opened. The bearer is admitted to the museum, and the reading room (free library). The ticket is signed by William D’Urban, RAMM’s first curator.
Curators & Collectors
RAMM's early curators, of which William D'Urban was the first, secured important collections for the museum. When D’Urban arrived in Exeter his priority was to organise the existing collection and make it ready for opening in 1868. Afterwards he continued to work on the displays and catalogue the early accessions.
After serving as a Royal Navy officer FWL Ross retired in 1830 to live at Broadway House in Topsham, Devon.
He devoted the rest of his life to collecting and the study of natural history. He created his own museum with specimens from around the world. His collection came to RAMM after his death in 1860
Percy Sladen was an expert on starfish and sea urchins and gathered a large collection of specimens during his lifetime.
Sladen died in Florence and in 1903 his wife Constance presented his collection to RAMM. She paid for Sladen’s Study to be created in his memory and for a curator to research and display the specimens.
The Exeter firm of Veitch & Sons became one of Britain’s most important horticultural firms. Employees travelled the world in search of botanical specimens.
During his life Sir Harry Veitch and his wife also amassed a significant art collection. It included Meissen figures, Venetian glassware, drawings and paintings. The collection was bequeathed to RAMM in 1924, following Sir Harry’s death.
Miss Juliana Emma Linter started collecting shells in the 1880s.
She wrote frequently to the shell experts of the day and could almost be described as a shell dealer.
‘For many years I have been collecting exotic land shells, in fact, my collection is about as complete as it can well be, and I have spared no expense or labour in making it and keeping it up to date, by securing representatives in the finest condition of all new species found and described.’
This invitation reads: 'The Governors request the presence of ... and Lady at the Museum on Wednesday the 18th February 1914 at 3.30pm when the Tiger presented by His Majesty King George V will be unveiled by Lady Wills.'
Frederick Richard Rowley held the post of curator at RAMM for 32 years. A report in the daily gazette on 26 November 1921 recorded that RAMM’s governors unanimously agreed that he ‘was in every respect the best man to be appointed’.
Rowley’s Saturday evening lectures on the collections and natural history in general were said to be so popular and engaging that there wasn’t always enough room for everyone.
Charles Peel was confident that big game hunting was the best lifestyle for young men in the late Victorian empire.
Peel wanted to promote the outdoor life and big game hunting. So he set up a private Museum of Natural History and Anthropology in his home town of Oxford.
When Peel moved to Devon he offered his collection to RAMM.
The changing face of RAMM
Almost as soon as the building was finished, pressure for space became a problem, leading to a number of extensions in 1884 and 1891, and more substantially in 1895, through the Kent Kingdon bequest. In 1887 it was decided to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee by building another wing to front on to Upper Paul Street. This was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1899 and is still known as York Wing. It was on this occasion that the institution was granted the right to add the word ‘Royal’ to its title.
This postcard shows the Ethnography and Archaeology gallery. The image demonstrates the way in which objects have been displayed in the museum in the past, with many items on open display around the walls. Many of these objects can be found on display in our modern galleries.
This room held the daily newspapers and periodicals as part of the building’s free library.
The statue in the background is of William Webb Follett (1796-1845) of Topsham, who after a successful legal career, became a member of parliament for Exeter from 1835-1845.
During the First World War the British Museum sent many objects to other museums for safekeeping.
This photograph from a glass plate negative taken on 3 March 1919 shows a collection of mammals returning to London via RAMM's Queen Street entrance. They had spent just over a year here at RAMM.
The ancient Egyptian mummy, coffin and cartonnage of Shep en-Mut were donated to the museum in 1897. The decoration and inscriptions show she was a married woman, and the daughter of NesAmenempit, who is described as a ‘carrier of the milk-jar’.
When RAMM accepted Charles Peel's collection of big game Sir E. Channing Wills paid for the specimens to be prepared and transported to RAMM.
Channing Wills also paid for a ‘temporary’ store known as the Peel Hut to house most of the collection. In fact the hut lasted for 60 years! This is a postcard produced by RAMM.
Gerald the Giraffe is one of RAMM's most iconic specimens. He has stood in the galleries since the 1920s.
In 1901 he encountered big game hunter Charles Victor Alexander Peel at Moshi, Tanzania, close to the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro.
Using a laser he measures 5.05m hooves to horns (known as ossicones) and 4.94m hooves to the top of his head.
Produced during the artist’s residency at RAMM 1987 based on drawings made of the large Natural History display case in the AB Gay Gallery, also incorporated as figure studies are drawings of staff members.
HLF funding allowed the redevelopment of the World Cultures galleries in 1998. Between 2001 and 2011 a museum-wide redevelopment addressed the Museum buildings as a single unit for the first time in its 140 year history. It repaired structural damage, allowed further growth with an additional entrance and a new temporary exhibitions gallery. All sections of the building were integrated to serve museum visitors for generations to come.
Only two objects remained in the building site during the redevelopment because they were simply too large to store elsewhere - the elephant and the giraffe.
When their time came to be installed into their new gallery they exited RAMM through a window on Upper Paul Street. A low loader moved them to Northernhay Gardens where they spent the night.
The next morning, despite the wind, the giraffe and the elephant were safely lowered through the roof of the museum by crane.
Starting at the top - installation of the moose and banners in the new Finders Keepers? Gallery.
The New Museum
A new entrance, new galleries and new displays. RAMM reopened to the public in December 2011 after a four year closure.
The multimillion pound redevelopment earned RAMM the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year 2012 award.
Lord Smith of Finsbury, Chairman of the judges panel, said, “The new Royal Albert Memorial Museum is quite simply a magical place, modest in scale but vast in its ambition and imagination. The Victorian aspirations to bring the world to Exeter are stunningly realised through some of the most intelligently considered displays on view in any museum in the UK. Every exhibit delights with a new surprise, and provokes with a new question".
Explore the redeveloped museum using Google Street View