Page updated 21st May 2016
The death of Prince Albert saw a flurry of construction of monuments and buildings to commemorate his life, with Exeter's museum in Queen Street one such example.
Sir Stafford Northcote proposed the museum to commemorate Prince Albert. A fund was launched for a new museum in 1861 and a plot of land donated by Richard Somers Gard MP in Queen Street.
After a competition that attracted 24 entries, the architect of St Luke's College John Haywood, was engaged, and the foundation stone for the Gothic design in Pocombe stone was laid, in 1865, by Richard Sommers Gard MP. Haywards design was costed at £7,500, while expenditure inevitably increased as construction continued. There were no suitable craftsmen to carve the extensive stonework on the building. The renowned Harry Hems was contacted and asked to come and work on the nascent building, arriving in Exeter by train. He never left the city, and eventually established his own workshop in Longbrook Street. The North Wing was complete in 1868 and at an additional cost of £3,000, the South Wing in 1869. The heating equipment was installed by local firm Garton and King.
An immediate start was made on collecting exhibits for the new museum, which were temporarily stored in Colleton Crescent. Later, a temporary exhibition ran for two or three years before the opening in 1868 and was visited by many thousands of visitors.
"During the progress of the works a temporary Museum or Depot has been opened in rooms adjoining the new structure..... ....to have attracted many thousands of visitors during the last two or three years. Mr. J. Tyrrell gave about 600 vols. of books; Dr. Scott, Mr. Ralph Sanders, Mr. W. S. M. D'Urban, the able and learned curator, Mr. W. Vicary, Mr. S.S. Bastard, Sir John Bowring, Mr. Sclater, Mr. Graham, and many other gentlemen have contributed specimens of the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms and antiquities and curiosities of various descriptions. The executors of the late Mr. Ross, of Topsham, handed over to the Museum that gentleman's valuable private collection of stuffed birds, animals, reptiles, &c. Altogether a most encouraging commencement has been made, and the specimens, &c., have been scientifically arranged for public exhibition by Mr. D'Urban." (Woolmers Exeter & Plymouth Gazette)
The museum was opened 21 April 1868 when the Mayor said: "I now have the pleasure of declaring this Devon and Exeter Albert Memorial Museum, intended for a School of Art, Science Classes, a Museum, and Free Library, to be open to the general public" (enthusiastic cheers.)
"Hearty cheers were then given for "The Queen," "The Mayor," "The Sculptor," "The Architect," "The Committee," and "The Ladies."" (Woolmers Exeter & Plymouth Gazette)
J B Goodrich penned this celebratory poem in a style that W T McGonagall, the nations worst poet, would be proud:
Here's the Museum
of fair design,
Carved and polished superbly fine...
Inwardly all is nicely plann'd,
Corridors branching on either hand...
Students of Art and Literature
Will draw, and read, and look demure,
While others will information gain,
Or just 'pop in' to dodge the rain.
Queen Victoria sent a signed book to the museum.
"The Mayor announced at the Art Union Drawing that Sir Stafford Northcote had just telegraphed down that Her Majesty the Queen had graciously ordered a copy of her recent book to be presented to the Exeter Albert Museum. The announcement was greeted with loud cheers. The book, we understand contain her Majesty's autograph, which will render it a valuable addition to the Museum collection, to be carefully preserved for all time." (Woolmers Exeter & Plymouth Gazette)
A bust of Prince Albert by the Exeter artist E B Stephens can be found on the landing, facing the main entrance. Also involved, producing carvings, was Harry Hems, the noted church restorer. An early enthusiast and benefactor for the museum was Kent Kingdon, who donated many works of art and books, during his life time and from his estate. Kingdon is also credited with the original idea to build the museum.
The School of Science (eventually to become the University), the School of Art, the Free Public Library, reading room, art gallery and the Museum were all housed in the new building. Gradually, over the years, the museum increased its book collection, and became the place to go for students, workers, children and the general public alike. However, the library facilities were only ever an extension of the museum, and were not purpose built for a large collection. It was not until 1930 that the City Library moved into its own purpose built headquarters in Castle Street.
The last phase of expansion within the present building was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York (King George V) in 1899, when the museum was granted the title, the Royal Albert Memorial.
The University expanded and a large purpose built building at the top of Upper Paul Street was constructed in 1910, for the University College of the South West, releaving pressure of space on the museum.
Thomas Hardy visited Exeter in June 1915 with his second wife, Florence, and spent some time in the museum. He saw a plaster cast of the fossil proto-bird archaeopteryx macrura, that had been discovered in Germany, and was inspired to write a poem entitled 'In a Museum'
Here's the mould of a musical bird long
passed from light,
Which over the earth before man came was winging;
There's a contralto voice I heard last night,
That lodges in me still with its sweet singing.
Such a dream is Time that the coo of this
Has perished not, but is blent, or will be blending
Mid visionless wilds of space with the voice that I heard,
In the full-fugued song of the universe unending.
On the opposite corner of Little Paul Street can be found Las Iguanos. When first built, the wine and spirit business used cellars both below the building and across the street, under what would become the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. When the museum was built, the cellars were preserved, and a tunnel was built that crossed under the street, linking the two sets of cellars. A stone was placed with the inscription, "This tunnel was built on the construction of the Albert Museum 1869 by Harding Richards, Wine Merchants". The tunnel was eventually bricked up, and Harding and Richards, reverted to using only the cellars below the shop. The museum's cellars are now used for storage.
Thomas Sharp, who was brought in to plan a new Exeter after the war, was not fond of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and described the building as an 'architectural horror, it is also extremely gloomy, and none too well suited for its purpose'. His solution was to replace it with a glass and concrete shoebox, set back from Queen Street to create a green area to the front. The University of the South West building would have also been lost with his scheme. Although he may be right about it being unsuited for its purpose, it would have been a shame to lose this building.
The University building (Phoenix Centre) was in fact vacated in 1955, when the University moved up to Duryard, and is now the Phoenix Arts Centre.
In May 1961, after slowly collecting English costumes for the previous forty years, Mr James Laver opened a gallery to display 100 of the collection. The gallery was largely based on a collection that belonged to Mrs M L Franks of Southampton and acquired in 1929. Dresses, fans, gloves and parasols from between 1750 and 1935, along with male and child clothing, made up the assemblage. The collection was later displayed in Rougemont House, but closed sometime in the 1990's.
New plans to modernise and develop the museum at a cost of £24 million commenced in April 2008–the architects were Allies and Morrison. A Heritage Lottery Fund award of £9 million went towards the scheme, along with £5.5 million from Exeter City Council and £1 million from the RAMM Development Trust. The museum closed in April 2008 for the work, to reopen on 15 December 2011. Extensive repairs were made to the fabric of the building, along with refurbishment, a complete redisplay of the collections, an extension and a new entrance from the historic Northenhay Park at the rear. In addition, there was a new storage facility at Marsh Barton called the Ark, to enhance the conservation work at the museum.
The museum was named the United Kingdom's "Museum of the Year" by the Art Fund charity in 2012. Lord Smith, the Chairman of the Art Fund Prize said of RAMM :
“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, and at a time when local authority museums in particular are in such danger, this brilliant achievement proves how daring, adventurous and important such institutions can be.”
RAMM is still open to the public, free of charge, and, for a city the size of Exeter, a proud achievement in public funding for the arts and education.
S ources - Exeter Phoenix by Thomas Sharp, Two Thousand Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins, the Times Archive and the RAMM website, artfund.org.
A print of the museum that appeared in a special feature of Woolmers Exeter & Plymouth Gazette for the opening of the museum in April 1868.
│ Top of Page │