Celebrating our treasures at Dumfries Museum

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Dumfries Museum’s new exhibition celebrates the vast wealth of treasures that have been collected by the people of this region and are now cared for by the museum.

From the linen wrapped head of an ancient Egyptian mummy to a collection of Scottish lichens, from a Chinese water pipe to an elaborately carved Norwegian powder horn and from the skin of a sloth to samples from the Indian Ocean telegraph cable, the variety is remarkable.

Most people collect and display something, it might be family photographs in an album, a child’s first shoes, stamps, football programmes or holiday souvenirs arranged on a mantelpiece. Some people collect for a specific purpose, paintings as an investment, or an archive of memories assembled to preserve a changing way of life.

The exhibition explores what motivates people to collect and the role museums play in safeguarding evidence of our material culture. It looks at Dumfries Museum during the early years, examines how our collections were formed and identifies some of the key collectors. It looks at how the collections are used to educate and entertain, and asks ‘what should be added to our collections in the future?’

The exhibition runs from Saturday, February 25, to Saturday, May 5. Dumfries Museum is open 10am-1pm, 2pm-5pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and admission is free.

In 1835 Dumfries and Maxwelltown Astronomical Society, newly formed at a time of expanding curiosity about all sciences, purchased a derelict windmill tower on Corbelly Hill. The Society had been founded to carry out astronomical observations, and members commissioned a local architect, Walter Newall, to convert it into an observatory. They also asked Thomas Morton of Kilmarnock to make a telescope and camera obscura. The building was ready for its first visitors in August 1836.

At its inaugural meeting a subscriber, Major Adair, had presented his collection of Greek and Roman coins to the Society. Gradually its collection of antiquities, curiosities and bygones became the member’s main occupation, and by the 1870s astronomical activities had ceased.

In 1862 the Main Hall was constructed as an extension to the windmill tower to accommodate the growing collections. In November 1862, The Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society was formed. It conducted fieldwork and collected a large body of historical material which was exhibited in the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Astronomical Society’s extended space. By the early 1930s the Astronomical Society’s finances were failing. It was faced with selling the buildings and its museum collections. The Antiquarian Society purchased the greater part of these collections, and the Town Council of Dumfries acquired the building and grounds, also agreeing to finance the running costs of what became Dumfries Burgh Museum.

The rich and varied collections in this special exhibition are due to the generosity, enthusiasm and dedication of individuals and organisations over the last 175 years. These are just two of them.

The Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society The Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society was formed in November 1862 at a meeting held in the Mechanics’ Hall, Dumfries. The meeting had been called at the instigation of Dr James Gilchrist, Dr J Dickson and Mr W G Gibson who had decided to ‘call together local gentlemen interested in the cultivation of Natural History and Antiquarian Research at Dumfries.’ Membership rose quickly, and an active programme of fieldwork together with the personal activities of many of its members resulted in the continued expanse of its collections. These were exhibited, along with those of the Dumfries and Maxwelltown Astronomical Society, in the observatory tower and main hall. In 1935 a formal loan from the Antiquarian Society to the Town Council was agreed. In 1982 the collections of the Antiquarian Society were presented as a permanent gift to Dumfries Museum. The collections represent the Antiquarian Society’s work over many decades and include social history, geological and botanical material as well as archaeological artefacts. Celebrating its 150th year, the Antiquarian Society continues to provide a focus for those interested in the archaeology, human and natural history of Dumfries and Galloway.