Sheffield’s oldest museum, Weston Park, has had a total makeover this year and has been revamped gallery by gallery ready for a grand reopening next month.
Minerals that glow under UV light, dodos, live birds and bee cams as well as an interactive social history of Sheffield are just some of the new features now on display.
With a £697,000 investment from the Heritage Lottery Fund and generous visitor donations, Weston Park has been able to renovate each section of the museum during the year.
The changes include two new displays – ‘Sheffield Life & Times’ in the social history gallery which chronicles sport, politics and shopping in the city and ‘What on Earth’ which showcases extinct and endangered species.
There has also been redevelopment in the archaeology and art galleries.
The new archaeology display ‘Beneath Your Feet’ shows the story of Sheffielders’ past including some of the city’s best loved artefacts like the Bronze Age canoe and Benty Grange Helmet.
Freely accessible museums are one of the crowning achievements of this country. It would be horrendous to lose that.Weston Park Natural Sciences Curator Alistair McLean
The final gallery to be revamped is the art gallery with a new display called ‘Picturing Sheffield’ which brings together views of Sheffield from 250 years ago. It will reopen in October with a double celebration to mark the end of its revamp and the 10th anniversary of the museum’s reopening in 2006.
Being more than 140 years old the museum not only has a vast collection of artefacts but a rich history of its own.
Its story can be traced back to as early as 1822 when the Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society collected interesting objects from around the world to educate the people of Sheffield.
Weston Park Natural Sciences Curator Alistair McLean said: “A lot of the first collection was geological because it reflected the make up of what people were doing as a profession in the city at that time.
“A lot of the members of the society were mine owners or mine operators so any interesting bits of rocks or geology or palaeontology that was dug up would be given to the society.
“There was also quite a bit of what they used to call industrial art so bits of metalwork in the collection as well, which of course Sheffield was famous for.
“Sheffielders at the time were venturing all over the world too, especially the British Empire, primarily to sell their wares.
“When they went away they’d often come back with souvenirs. So if they’d gone to Egypt for example they’d often come back with mummified animals that were sold in bazaars in Egypt. Some of them were fake but every now and then a real one cropped up.”
In its beginnings the museum was only open to private members who had to pay for membership on top of entry fee every time they visited the museum.
It was not until 1875 that the Literary and Philosophical Society decided the collection had become too big so donated the museum to City Corporation – the forerunner to Sheffield Council – who made it freely accessible for the public.
The first artefact in the history of the museum’s collection was a duck-billed platypus thought to be potentially one of the first of its species to be stuffed. However when it was discovered, no one had recorded the date or location, so the mystery of whether it was one of the first ever duck-billed platypuses, or just another, is still unsolved.
The first curator Elijah Howarth was aged only 22 when he became head of Weston Park Museum where he oversaw the progress of the museum for 50 years. During that time he set up the city’s weather station, one of the longest working weather stations in the UK, and became one of the founding members of the National Museums Association.
Through his contacts with other key curators in the UK Howarth expanded the collection recording each object’s story as it came through.
At the start the museum had around 50,000 objects – today it has nearly 750,000.
One of the museums more quirky artefacts with a well-known story is the skull of a man-eating crocodile.
Alistair said: “A few years ago we discovered the crocodile was shot while it was trying to eat somebody. So we looked into it a little bit further and discovered when we found the crocodile skull we also acquired a set of arm bands from the stomach of the crocodile.
“So it had obviously eaten someone else as well. So this was a man-eating crocodile that was shot when it was trying to eat someone from Sheffield and it had previously eaten someone else.”
Alistair also expressed how important the museum is for not only Sheffield’s culture but also the city’s scientific research.
He said: “It’s important to know where we come from as a city. It would be very unwise to forget our roots and to the names of the people who made our city great in the first place. Speaking as a natural scientist the collections are very important for now because the natural science collections tell us what the city’s wildlife was like 30 years ago, 50 years ago, going all the way back to the very origins of the collection. And you’ll not find another collection anywhere else in the world that shows us what Sheffield’s environment was like 100 years ago.
“As you can imagine that’s really significant now as our wildlife is changing radically with climate change and with industrialisation and loss of habitat. It’s important to know what things were like in the past especially if there is a hope any time to get things back to the way they were.”
He also expressed concerns that government cuts could lead to less accessible museums in the future.
Alistair said: “The museum has always been hugely popular with the public. I think one of the factors in that is that it’s free. Freely accessible museums are one of the crowning achievements of this country. It would be horrendous to lose that.
“If council cuts keep happening because of central government cuts then it’s less likely that we’re going to have as many free museums. Museums are closing down all over the country and the ones that aren’t are beginning to have to charge.”
The final gallery in the redevelopment will open on October 22 with a celebration to mark 10 years since its reopening in 1996.