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History of the Museum

The first Durham University Museum was founded in the Old Fulling Mill on the banks of the River Wear in 1833, the year after the founding of the University itself. It was the second university museum in England to be opened to the public.

The original museum was a typical Victorian collection of natural history specimens, foreign curios and antiquities. Its first keeper, William Proctor, was appointed "to the charge of the Birds in the Museum" in 1834 at a stipend of £25. Proctor (1798 - 1877) was a carpenter's apprentice who turned to natural history and specialised in taxidermy. His best-known exploit was a trip to Iceland in search of unknown species. Exhibits in the museum included a great auk, a polar bear's foot and a stuffed lion. Other highlights included botanical and geological specimens and curiosities such as an admission card to Nelson's funeral, a pair of Chinese slippers, a silver trophy won at the 1835 regatta and hair balls from a cow's stomach.

Antiquities such as fragments of St. Cuthbert's coffin, prehistoric flints, coins from Hadrian's Wall, a bone skate from York, and miscellaneous objects from Rome, Carthage, Jerusalem and Memphis, were supplemented in 1880 by material excavated from the Roman fort of Vinovia at Binchester (near Bishop Auckland). This formed the basis of the early archaeological collection.

By 1878 the University had decided that a riverside location prone to flooding was an unsuitable place for a museum. The university museum had moved to Bishop Cosin's Almshouses on Palace Green under the guardianship of Proctor's successor, Joseph Cullingford. Although less damp than the Mill, the collections were little better off owing to serious overcrowding. A visitor in 1892 had "no hesitation in saying that their museum reflects no credit on the University of Durham". By 1917, the University had decided to disperse much of the natural history collection. The rest of the collections were stored in adjacent lecture rooms.

In 1931, when Eric Birley was appointed to the University as the first lecturer in archaeology, the archaeological collections assumed new importance. Birley added material from his excavations on Hadrian's Wall to the teaching collections used by the department and other colleagues followed suit, slowing increasing the size of the collections to reflect their excavations and research interests. 

In 1956, the Fulling Mill was once more leased to the University by its owner Durham Cathedral, this time to house the growing Department of Archaeology. When the Department moved to even larger premises in 1975, it reinstated the Mill as a museum, this time focused only on archaeology.

In 1986 Dame Margot Fontaine opened new displays on the ground floor of the museum. The layout concentrated on material from Durham, though set in an international context. The displays also included Roman material lent to the museum from Durham Cathedral’s substantial collections. 

The Museum continued to contribute to the wide-ranging teaching and research programmes in the Department of Archaeology, particularly in the creation of temporary exhibitions for the upstairs gallery of the Mill building. Museum staff also began to work with other departments right across Durham University. Over the years the Museum also developed as an important educational resource for local schools, as well as a destination for families and visitors to Durham. 

By 2012 the old displays were beginning to show their age and the problems of ice and snow in winter and flooding at other times of year had become increasingly problematic for the operation of the museum and the safety of the collections. The University had begun work on a multi-million pound refurbishment of Palace Green Library, situated between Durham Castle and Cathedral at the heart of the World Heritage Site. This created an opportunity to create a new, larger, archaeology gallery in a location far more accessible for visitors than the old mill building. A new permanent gallery showcasing the archaeology collections opened in July 2014.

In their new home, the archaeological displays sit alongside other artefacts from the University’s collections. This sets Durham, its people and its University in a broader historical and cultural setting. It also provides a much safer environment for the museum’s objects and at the same time offers a greatly enhanced experience for visitors with better facilities, improved access and increased space for events and activities.

The opening of the new public archaeology displays marks a new chapter in the history of the museum. The transfer of the research collections to new storage facilities will be the next phase of development.