The origins of RAMM can be dated to 1813, when the Devon and Exeter Institution opened with the aim of ‘promoting the general diffusion of Science, Literature and Art, and illustrating the Natural and Civic History of the County of Devon and the City of Exeter’.
Fast forward over 200 years, and the iconic Royal Albert Memorial Museum on Exeter’s Queen Street is one of the city’s most beloved cultural spaces. Housing exceptional collections, innovative events and space for big ideas, RAMM today is a place for visitors to experience global and local culture, share conversations and learn.
The Origins of RAMM
The idea of creating a museum in Exeter dates back to the early 19th century, although the museum itself was established in the 1860s. Following the opening of the Devon and Exeter Institution, started to gather together artefacts and specimens, some of which made it into the RAMM collections. However while the library flourished, the museum element lost impetus.
RAMM was created when Britain was a major colonial power, controlling the lives of millions of people around the world. The educational purpose embraced by the founders of the institution was shared by Prince Albert in his plans for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The profits from the event allowed for the foundation of public works such as the Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and what was to become the Victoria and Albert Museum. Museums are places where people come face-to-face with objects from the past. We can learn a lot from them. Objects can stimulate our creativity and spark new ideas. RAMM is a place where people, objects and ideas meet. Every object entering RAMM comes with its own life story. And just like our stories they include episodes that are inspiring and uplifting, as well as ones that are traumatic and difficult to talk about. Whatever their back story, all of RAMM’s objects are treated with care and respect.
One of Prince Albert’s secretaries for the Great Exhibition was Sir Stafford Northcote of Pynes (later 1st Earl of Iddesleigh), a Devon MP who also served as President of the Exeter School of Art. When the Prince died in 1861, it was Northcote who proposed that a memorial to him should be established in Exeter and launched an appeal for funds. A meeting the following year created the blueprint for the Devon and Exeter Albert Memorial Institution. This was to be a building housing a museum and art gallery, a free public library, a school of art and a mechanical institute.
The public subscription totalled around £15,000. This was no mean effort given the fact that Exeter, unlike the great industrial cities of northern England, could not rely on immensely wealthy and philanthropic benefactors. Richard Somers Gard, Exeter’s MP at the time, presented a site for the proposed building on Queen Street, and additional land was purchased for £2000.
John Hayward, an important figure in the Gothic Revival school in the south-west, won an architectural competition to design the new building. The design was strongly influenced by architects Deane and Woodward, who had designed the University Museum in Oxford, which had been completed in 1860 according to the principles of architecture laid down by John Ruskin. Hayward’s design was also much influenced by the Early English architectural style of the 13th century; it was ornamented by large arched windows with tracery, smaller trefoil-headed windows and a rose window of almost cathedral-like proportions.
The building work started in 1865 on Queen Street, when Gard laid the foundation stone, and was finished in 1868. Art and science lessons were started at the Albert Memorial Institution in that year, but the official opening was held in August 1869 in the presence of members of the British Association. On entering the building visitors were presented with a view of a grand staircase, with a statue of Prince Albert as its focus. On the ground floor the museum occupied the southern side, with the free library and reading-room to the north, while the school of art and classrooms occupied the upper floors. A lending library was added in July 1870.
Museum collections were already being amassed before the building work had been completed. Part of an existing building on Queen Street was converted to form a depot, and in 1865 a curator was appointed; this was William Stewart Mitchell D’Urban, who served until 1884. Almost as soon as the building was finished, pressure for space became a problem, leading to a number of extensions in 1884 and 1891, and more substantially in 1895, through the Kent Kingdon bequest.
In 1887 it was decided to celebrate Queen Victoria’s jubilee by building another wing to front on to Upper Paul Street. This was opened by the Duke and Duchess of York in 1899 and is still known as York Wing. It was on this occasion that the institution was granted the right to add the word ‘Royal’ to its title.
The educational aspects of the institution continued to evolve, as it became the Royal Albert Memorial University College, then in 1922 the University College of South West England. The library moved out in 1930, and then in 1955 Exeter University was founded and departments moved to the new campus, freeing up space for museum displays.
HLF funding allowed the redevelopment of the World Cultures in 1999 and a major redevelopment 2001 to 2011 addressed the Museum buildings as a single unit for the first time in its 140 year history. The redevelopment repaired structural damage, allowed further growth with an additional entrance and a new temporary exhibitions gallery and all sections of the building were integrated to serve museum visitors for generations to come. The multimillion pound redevelopment earned RAMM the Art Fund’s Museum of the Year 2012 award. It was funded by Exeter City Council, the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund (£9million), and other sources.
150 years of RAMM
In 2018, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery celebrated its 150th anniversary. To celebrate, we recreated some of the events that took place in 1868, and we added some new ones. In 1868 the opening of the museum was celebrated with a concert; so as part of the celebrations in April 2018 Exeter’s EMG Symphony Orchestra performed a museum-inspired programme at Exeter Cathedral. Our Carnival of the Animals was a new interpretation of the parade that took place on the day of the opening. We also had exhibitions, a new children’s book about RAMM, a celebratory concert series, special merchandise, high profile speakers and an art commission. RAMM’s newly refurbished World Cultures galleries also reopened in May. And finally, RAMM teamed up with Exeter Brewery to launch a special 150th anniversary beer – Albert’s Ale. We invited everyone in Exeter to join with us in this spectacular celebration.
Today, RAMM is a space where everyone can come and explore our shared past and culture. Explaining where an object comes from, who collected it and why, can raise difficult questions. RAMM was created when Britain was a major colonial power controlling the lives of millions of people around the world. Some collectors abused their position and took without permission. Others treated the people and wildlife they encountered with respect.
History is often presented as a single version of events. But the past is made up of many stories. RAMM is constantly uncovering new ones that have been lost or hidden. They cannot all appear in the galleries, so we use them in websites, social media, temporary exhibitions, talks and events.
A visit to RAMM can help us understand and acknowledge what happened in the past and contemplate the challenges of our future.