What’s the Sunderland link between 72 birds, 12 fish and Ulysses S Grant?

A museum room in 1911.
A museum room in 1911.
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There were 34 mammals, 72 birds, 17 reptiles and 12 fish.

Add to it two cases of insects, wood from a submerged forest, plus dried plants and you have the start of something special.

The walrus exhibition in 1955.

The walrus exhibition in 1955.

That was more than 200 years ago but Sunderland’s links with a museum had been formed. And interested people can find out more at a talk later this week.

Elise Ronald, Chairman of the Friends of Sunderland Museums from 2006 to 2016, will give the talk.

In the meantime, she explained how Sunderland’s fascination with history took off in style.

It all began in 1793 when a subscription library was opened.

They had specimens of 34 mammals. 72 birds, 17 reptiles, 12 fish, two cases of insects, two volumes of dried plants, bark cloth from Tahiti, 16 specimens of wood, wood from a submerged forest at Seaton Carew,

Elsie Ronald

By 1810, a subscription museum followed and they shared a building in High Street in Sunderland between Nile Street and Norfolk Street.

In it, there was a veritable array of interesting items. The numbers ran into their hundreds.

They had two volumes of dried plants, and bark cloth from Tahiti.

They had 16 specimens of wood, wood from a submerged forest at Seaton Carew, 427 minerals and fossils, and miscellaneous antiquities and curiosities.

The first home of the museum.

The first home of the museum.

They had specimens of 34 mammals. 72 birds, 17 reptiles, 12 fish, two cases of insects.

And most of all, they had the interest of the public.

When this subscription library and museum folded, its collection transferred to the Villiers Street premises of the Sunderland Natural History Society and Antiquities Society which was founded in 1836.

The Athenaeum building was opened in 1841 and the library and museum collections were transferred to this new building.

Although the museum was one room in the building, it was opened to the public in 1843.

But by 1845, the Museums Act allowed local councils to run museums financed by the rates, and in May 1846 the upkeep of it was taken over by the Sunderland Corporation.

This made Sunderland the first local authority in the country outside of London to finance a museum from rates. Six months ago, it was the 170th anniversary.

In 1855, it was proposed to build a crystal palace on Building Hill, with space in it for a brand new museum.

That proposal came to nothing, but by 1866 - the year the extension park was opened - it was realised that a new building was needed for the town hall, museum and library.

Only the library, museum and art gallery were built at a cost of £11,700 for the Museum and Library, and the Winter Gardens for £2000.

The foundation stone of the museum was laid in 1877 by the Mayor, Alderman Storey, in the presence of General Ulysses S. Grant, and two years later in 1879 the mayor, Alderman Storey, officially opened the building.

The old library was in what is now the Pottery Gallery.

The public were not allowed access to the books, the attendant brought them the kind of book they requested.

The Winter Gardens were demolished in 1942 after being damaged when the Victoria Hall was destroyed by a land mine in the Second World War.

The land occupied by the Winter Gardens was used for the 1960s extension, and the library took over the back half of the ground floor. What is now the Pottery Gallery became the reference library.

In the late 1990s both Mowbray Park and the Museum closed for major refurbishment.

The park re-opened in April 2000 and the museum and winter gardens in July 2001. In the first year they had six times as many visitors as expected, and it is the most used museum in the country outside of London. It is the biggest visitor attraction in Sunderland.

And now, interested people can find out more when Elsie holds the talk.

Find out why the Town Hall was not built in Mowbray Park.

Find out how Sunderland councillors celebrated the visit of General Ulysses S Grant.

All this and more will be explained at a talk which has been arranged by the Friends of Sunderland Museums.

It will be held on Saturday, May 13, at 2pm and will take place in Sunderland Museum.

To find out more about Elsie’s talk, and future Friends events, visit the Friends website at http://www.fosums.getfreehosting.co.uk/