The Horsfall Museum’s Bird Room, late 1930s. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery. 

In celebration of International Museums Day (Saturday 18 May), Hannah Williamson shares about her research into the work of Bertha Hindshaw at the Horsfall Museum to open up questions of gender, class and historical amnesia in museums.  

Saturday 18 May was International Museums Day, and this year the International Council of Museums (ICOM) set the theme as ‘Museums for Education and Research’. ICOM are keen to show that Museums are part of a ‘holistic educational experience’. This is nothing new. Museums in our city have aimed to be outside-the-classroom educators since the 1880s. 

My research looks at an educational Museum in Manchester, founded to improve the life of the working classes by introducing them to beautiful things. It was a remedial measure, a drop of culture in the ocean of evils brought about by the industrial system. Conceived by Thomas Horsfall (1841-1932) as The Manchester Art Museum, it opened in Ancoats Hall in 1886, at the heart of the world’s first industrial suburb (Rose et al., 2011). Horsfall was inspired by John Ruskin, who although a confirmed rager against the machine, was sceptical about fighting his battles in Manchester. Ruskin considered Manchester too in love with dirty money to be a fit place for a museum. And it did look inauspicious: Ancoats Hall was a soot-blackened building surrounded by railway yards. 

Ancoats Hall, Manchester, late 1930s. Unknown photographer. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery

Yet Horsfall’s Museum was a success, in that it welcomed thousands of visitors (e.g. 61,000 people visited in 1894 (Horsfall, 1894-95)). It was a beacon for similar projects internationally, including Chicago’s Hull-House and the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London. Its most significant contribution to education history was when its committee led a deputation to the national Committee of Council on Education on 24 May 1894 (Horsfall, 1894-95, p. 6) requesting a change in the law so that schools could count time spent in museums as classroom time. This Education Act amendment was passed largely thanks to Horsfall’s lobbying.  

In 1895 the Museum was joined by the Manchester University Settlement. Settlement workers were often students or graduates, living in Ancoats to understand and work with those less well off than themselves. As part of their social work, they provided music, dancing and lectures in subjects from economics to English literature. The Museum was a thriving hub for education in the 1890s.  

All this is known to museum historians, and justly celebrated. But what happened after Horsfall retired from philanthropy, and handed his Museum over to the City Council in 1918?  

Bertha Hindshaw, about 1900. Unknown photographer. Image courtesy of the Hindshaw family

Bertha Hindshaw happened. Hindshaw (1881-1955), known as ‘Bert’ to her friends, and as ‘Miss Hindshaw’ in the workplace, transformed the Horsfall Museum from an art museum with a flair for education to one of the UK’s first specialist educational museums. She was the Museum’s Curator from 1912 to 1947, and during that time she deployed a range of educational techniques. She was most famous for her Children’s Theatre, inaugurated in 1920, which operated in the museum’s old concert room, a 500-seater tin-roofed structure behind the hall. Children wrote, produced and acted in plays which they performed in front of an audience of their peers. Around the sides of the auditorium were ‘peepshows’ – homemade dioramas that allowed the children to peep into miniature historical scenes. Hindshaw’s method was to watch the children who came to the Museum, see what they liked to look at it, and provide more of it (Hindshaw, 1930). She consulted with them, convening a Children’s Parliament, in which young people discussed and planned the Museum’s future endeavours. She introduced an aviary, and what we might now call a mini-zoo, plus miniature gardens with real water. Her work was celebrated in the trade publication Museums Journal (MJ, 1932) and she was officially recognised in 1942, through her appointment as first woman president of the North-West Federation of Museums, the country’s oldest regional organisation for museum professionals (Manchester Guardian, 1955). 

The Horsfall Museum’s Children’s Theatre, late 1930s. Image courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery.

I am at the stage in my research where I have pieced together Hindshaw’s biography and educational methods, bringing to life in my own mind a vivid personality who significantly influenced her profession. It bothers me that she does not get more than a mention in museum histories, even those about her Museum (e.g. Harrison, 1985). There are no doubt multiple reasons for this: her Museum shut in 1953, and the building was demolished in 1965. Without a place for remembering, it is hard to remember. The Museum’s collection remains in the care of the City Council, at Manchester Art Gallery, yet Hindshaw’s work has not been well recorded. Museums tend to pass down their memories through their objects, but using objects as sites of remembrance for Hindshaw is proving tricky. Horsfall’s acquisition of the objects is documented, but no-one thought to write down how Hindshaw used them in her educational work. I am unearthing the issues of class and gender woven into this forgetting. 

So is Hindshaw – is most museum education work, often perceived as a female profession – lost to history? It depends. It depends on historians to keep rewriting the past to include the excluded – work of recent years gives cause for optimism on this front (eg. Hill, 2016). It also depends on museums themselves, and whether they archive their own pasts in a way that saves evidence of their educational activity, and not just the display of their objects. A good museum can change your life, and it’s often the educational staff that do the changing. They’re worth remembering on International Museums Day.  

With thanks to the funders of this research, the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership.  


Harrison, M. (1985) ‘Art and Philanthropy: T. C. Horsfall and the Manchester Art Museum.’ In Kidd, A. J. and Roberts, K. W. (eds.) City, Class and Culture: Studies of Social Policy and Cultural Production in Victorian Manchester. Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 120-147.  

Hill, K. (2016) Women and museums, 1850-1914: modernity and the gendering of knowledge. Gender in history. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 

Hindshaw, B. (1930). ‘The Young Visitor’. Museums Journal, 29, 227-234. 

Horsfall, T. C. (1894-95) The Manchester Art Museum Annual Report. Held at: Manchester Art Gallery.  

Manchester Guardian. (1955) ‘OBITUARY: MISS BERTHA HINDSHAW. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959). 28th July 1955. p. 12. 

MJ. (1932). PEEP-SHOWS FOR A CHILDREN’S MUSEUM. Museums Journal, 32, 347-348. 

Rose, M. E., Falconer, K. and Holder, J. (2011) Ancoats: Cradle of Industrialisation. English Heritage. 

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