Lit & Phil Museums: the role of Learned Societies in the creations of museums in Britain, especially in the North West

Anthony Burton
30th January 2018, 7:00pm

The history of local museums in England (as distinct from royal, national and university collections) is usually regarded as starting with William Ewart’s Museum Acts of 1845 and 1850, which permitted local authorities to subsidise museums from local rates. Before this, however (and, indeed, after), many museums were founded by local learned societies — societies variously named, but usually collectively known as “Lit and Phils”. Many of these museum collections, though created by private associations of worthies with intellectual interests, were eventually subsumed in local public museums and thus opened to public use. This lecture describes and contextualises the creation of Lit and Phil museums.


Such museums tended to follow an accepted model, covering natural history, geology, archaeology and ethnography. These subjects would be categorised as “philosophy” (meaning science), and the museums would sometimes also collect art. This range of material did expose them to some mockery, as “heterogeneous and absurd jumbles”, but the intellectual ambition that inspired them was surely admirable.


Manchester Lit and Phil, though one of the earliest in the world, did not start a museum. But other learned institutions in Manchester did so, and this lecture concentrates also on Lit and Phil museums in Liverpool, Preston, Kendal, Derby, Chester, and other places in this region.

About the Speaker

Anthony Burton spent most of his working life as a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which he joined in 1968. As an Assistant Keeper in the National Art Library he specialised in the history of typography and book illustration, and supervised the Library’s exhibition programme. Later, as Head of the V&A’s branch museum, the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, he wrote Children’s Pleasures (1996), a book that set the museum’s collections in context. He then returned to the V&A, to the new Research Department, where he brought to fruition his long-standing interest in the history of the V&A and began his researches into Lit-and-Phil museums. His history of the V&A, Vision and Accident (1999), was followed by a biography of the museum’s founding Director (with colleague Elizabeth Bonython): The Great Exhibitor: The Life and Work of Henry Cole (2003). He also taught at Kingston University on the MA course on ‘Curating Contemporary Design’ and was for nearly 30 years a Trustee of the Charles Dickens Museum in London. Now, having retired to Marple where he grew up, he serves as a Trustee of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester.


Menu for Supper

A hot and cold buffet including sandwiches, tarts, quiches, pastries, breads and dips. Dessert items are also included.

N.B. the Lit & Phil office have to inform venues of catering numbers approximately 7 days before an event so please make sure you book as early as possible to avoid disappointment.