This splendid institution turned 150 years of age in April 2010 and, though it’s a little late, let’s have a celebratory look back at its history.
The building now occupied by the museum and art gallery was built during 1859-60 as the South Shields Mechanics Institute for the purposes of providing the working classes with a means by which they may educate themselves. Sir Robert Ingham, MP for South Shields and President of the Mechanics Institution, would have had quite a say in the matter, no doubt, and it was he who laid the foundation stone in 1859. Built at a cost of £2,700, the Institute was opened in April the following year, but proved too costly to run so was sold onto the Borough Corporation in 1871 for use as its planned Free Library.
Eventually, in October 1873, the building was indeed opened as the town's first public library. However, within a few years the building began doubling up as a display venue for relics from the nearby Roman fort, and a move was made to open a museum within the building – a development which came to fruition in 1876. As the years went by, other artefacts would be added to the museum’s collection as seafarers brought items home from all over the world.
The museum and library continued to share the building until 1976, when the new library complex opened in Prince Georg Square – after which the old building was rebranded as the ‘Museum and Art Gallery’. Since then, significant improvements have been made to the building, inside and out – most notably in 2001 and during 2003-4.