History of prominent museum and library building celebrated ahead of rejuvenation

The history of one of Warrington’s most prominent town centre buildings is being celebrated ahead of plans for a rejuvenation.

The more than 150-year-old structure which houses Warrington Museum & Library and Central Library is one of the most recognisable and well-visited buildings in the town centre.

Now Culture Warrington and LiveWire, which together run library, museum, arts, archives and heritage services from the building on behalf of Warrington Borough Council, have plans to re-energise the space as a creative hub, with a nod to the building’s origins as a combined museum and library.

Janice Hayes, honorary heritage curator for Culture Warrington, shared her insight on the building’s fascinating past.

In May 1848, Warrington Borough Council created an institution which at the time was unique in nature – the first museum and library to be founded under the 1845 Museums Act.

“This was thanks to a partnership between the newly formed Borough of Warrington and a group of trustees,” Janice explained, “which is a nice parallel to how Culture Warrington and LiveWire are governed today.”

The town claimed ownership of the “first public museum in a manufacturing district” and the third museum founded in the whole country under the act.

Janice said: “The people of Warrington flocked to make use of their new facility and by 1853 it had outgrown its temporary premises in Friars Gate and the search began for a new home.”

The foundation stone at the site situated on the corner of Museum Street and Bold Street was laid on 22 September 1855 by William Beaumont, the first Mayor of Warrington, and the building opened in December 1857.

Thanks to an extension along Museum Street, the library grew in size and upstairs a new art gallery was created and officially opened on 4 October 1877.

As well as the museum, galleries and a reference library, the building also became home to Warrington’s School of Art created by the Mechanics Institute to help young artists find work in industry.

The school flourished and produced artists of the calibre of Luke Fildes, who developed into an established graphic artist, illustrating works by Charles Dickens, and later became a member of the Royal Academy.

By the 1930s the museum and library were separate entities sharing one building, much as Warrington Museum & Art Gallery and Central Library have co-habited in recent years.

In her book Warrington in 50 Buildings, Janice describes the building’s 20th-century developments which include a “magnificent new domed lending library with Art Deco influences and additional museum galleries”.

“Despite further remodelling in the 1960s the museum has retained its distinctive character by sensitively adapting its Victorian galleries while developing a reputation for its contemporary art exhibitions.”

Extra display space was created by the addition of a mezzanine gallery in the 1990s and in 2013 the Cabinet of Curiosities gallery was opened thanks to support from Heritage Lottery Fund to showcase the museum’s extensive and historically-important collections.

In 2012 leisure, libraries and lifestyles services were transferred from Warrington Borough Council to LiveWire community interest company, which runs Central Library, and Culture Warrington charitable trust was set up to manage Pyramid Arts Centre, Parr Hall, Warrington Museum & Art Gallery and events such as Warrington Contemporary Arts Festival.

The two organisations are now planning to inject the shared building with a new lease of life during a two-week closure which runs from 4pm on Saturday 31 August until Saturday 14 September when it will reopen as Warrington Museum & Library.

The rejuvenation, which aims to establish the building as a creative hub and increase links between the museum and library services, will bring about cosmetic improvements as well as the aligning of activities and opening hours, including Sunday opening for the first time.

The evolution of Warrington’s museum and library:

  • May 1848 – Warrington Borough Council creates museum and library;
  • 1853 – museum and library outgrows temporary premises in Friars Gate;
  • September 1855 – foundation stone laid on site at corner of Museum Street and Bold Street;
  • 1855-7 – basic galleries and library spaces created on two levels;
  • December 1857 – Warrington’s museum and library building officially opened;
  • 1870s – two-storey extension along Museum Street constructed, principally creating art gallery at first floor level;
  • Early 1930s – building of central lending library and additional museum galleries;
  • Mid 1960s – further extended along Museum Street to create new classroom;
  • Mid 1970s – museum acquires and adapts Number 7 Museum Street as ancillary space;
  • 1990s – library and museum further developed internally to current configuration.