History of Weston Park Museum
Weston Park Museum first opened to the public on the 6 September 1875, displaying collections of natural history, metalwork, archaeology and oil paintings. The building was very different to the building that exists today.
The original museum was formerly a private house known as Weston Hall, and the park was its extensive estate. The land came into the ownership of the Harrison family in around 1780. The Hall was built in 1795 or shortly after. After the death of the last surviving family member, Eliza Harrison in 1873, the hall and its grounds were purchased by Sheffield council. The grounds were converted into Sheffield’s first public park by Robert Marnock, and the building was transformed into Sheffield’s first public museum by architect E.M.Gibbs. Two long galleries were added to the back of the house, and a small third story office and balcony was added to the roof. The museum housed the natural history, geology and archaeology collections donated by Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society in 1874. The displays were soon enhanced by donations and loans from local individuals, companies and institutions such as the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum).
The collections grew quickly under the guidance of its curator, Elijah Howarth. Howarth oversaw the acquisition of nationally significant objects and specimens for the museum, including the Bateman archaeology and palaeontology collection, specimens of birds and their eggs from pioneering ornithologist, Henry Seebohm, and examples of applied art associated with Sheffield’s world-famous metalwork and manufacturing industries.
In 1883, John Newton Mappin, a wealthy Sheffield brewer, bequeathed £15,000 and his collection of paintings to Sheffield, on the proviso that a purpose-built public art gallery be built. The museum was extended, and the Mappin Art Gallery was opened in July 1887. The new gallery, designed by Flockton & Gibbs, was built in the neo-classical style. The architectural difference between the Mappin and Weston was extremely jarring, and in 1899, plans were drawn up to add further extensions to the museum, to the North and South of the new Mappin wing, but this was considered too expensive at the time. In 1934, local businessman and philanthropist J G Graves provided funds to realise a large part of these plans. Weston Hall was demolished and a new building was erected in its place, opening as Sheffield City Museum and Mappin Art Gallery in 1937.
During the Sheffield Blitz, in December 1940, the museum and art gallery were badly damaged when a bomb exploded on Mushroom Lane, a few yards from the North-West corner of the Mappin. This obliterated three of the Mappin’s six galleries. The shockwave caused major damage throughout the rest of the museum, shattering almost every pain of glass in the building and destroying many artefacts. Fortunately, the structure of the museum was deemed safe and reopened the following year, but the Mappin Art Gallery was left in a partially demolished state until the 1960s.
In 1965 funding for the rebuilding of the art gallery was made available. Under direction of Lewis Womersley (also responsible for the Park Hill housing estate), Sheffield City Council architects saw the three galleries that survived the bombing restored to their original design. A combined single modern gallery was built to replace the three which had been destroyed.
Piecemeal alterations took place during the 1970s and 1980s, but by 2003 both the Museum and Gallery were in a poor state, leading to a major £19m refurbishment programme led by Museums Sheffield. As a result, the Mappin Art Gallery and City Museum were consolidated into a single entity and reverted to its original, and most well-used, name; Weston Park Museum.
The renovated museum, which now sits proudly in its namesake park (also restored to former glory in recent years) has retained the best of its existing architecture with additional features to create a building fit for its modern purpose. As well as bricks and mortar, many of the much-loved former residents, such as Snowy the Polar Bear, have been kept as part of the new museum.
Since re-opening in 2006, Weston Park Museum has undergone further improvements. In 2016, a major redevelopment programme supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund saw a complete revamp of the museum’s archaeology and art galleries, followed in 2020 with the introduction of two new galleries, one showcasing the city’s Ancient Egyptian collection and the other co-curated with residents of Sheffield telling the stories of people who live in the city.
As well as the permanent galleries, which span Sheffield's story from pre-history to the present day, a temporary exhibition space presents a wide-ranging exhibition programme and also welcomes shows from partners such as the British Museum and the V&A Museum of Childhood.
Image: Mappin Art Gallery, 1887.