History of the museum

Whitby Museum is owned and operated by Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, a charitable body established in January 1823, a period when such societies operated in many British towns.

It was founded by a group of leading Whitby citizens led by the Rev. George Young, a local Presbyterian Church minister, and author of A History of Whitby (1817).

The chief object of the Society was to set up and maintain a museum, specialising in fossils, since ‘Whitby is a chief town of a district abounding with petrifications and containing not a few Antiquities.’

The museum opened in September 1823 and the collections soon filled the original two rooms over shops on Baxtergate. In 1827 it moved to the top floor of the riverside building now known as Fusco’s Quayside Fish Restaurant. On the ground floor were the public baths, and a subscription library occupied the middle floor with the largest windows.

Museum located on Pier Road

This strategic site on the fashionable promenade was a prime attraction in the Victorian resort. Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins were among the visitors. Bram Stoker’s signature appears in the Visitors’ Book for 1890, when he is known to have consulted books in the subscription library, including An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia by William Wilkinson (1820); along with Transylvania this is modern Romania.

The museum’s collections grew to include local plants, shells and butterflies, beetles and fishes, as well as many exhibits illustrating the history of Whitby, including some sizeable models of buildings and ships.

As the 19th century became the 20th the main anxiety of the Society was providing more space. After various proposals, in 1924 the decision was made to build a new museum in Pannett Park. Built at a cost to the Society of £6577, it was opened in August 1931. Since then the collections have grown apace, and the building has been extended several times.

In 1950 a new library, the Kendall Room, was added to house the Society’s collection of books, manuscripts and ephemera relating to Whitby and district. The Chapman Wing houses the museum’s large collection of ship models, and objects relating to Captain James Cook, and the local whaling industry of the 18th and 19th centuries. More can be found in the library and archives, and the other collections.

In 2005 the Society opened its latest extension, which almost doubled the size of the building. This houses a gallery for temporary exhibitions, lecture room, dedicated costume store and gallery, workshops, stores and a tearoom. This was funded by local donations and the Heritage Lottery fund. The increased capacity allows us to do what is expected of a modern museum, without compromising the valued ‘Edwardian’ character of the older section.

Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society is a charitable trust (Charity Commission number 1171266.) Its Committee of trustees are elected from among its membership, and meet monthly to review and oversee its activities.

A Joint Management Committee with Whitby Town Council oversees the building. The Council provides security and cleaning staff, as well as operating the adjacent Pannett Art Gallery, bequeathed to the people of Whitby in 1920 by local solicitor, Robert Elliot Pannett.

The Society is operated mostly by volunteers, and is managed on a day-to-day basis by the Hon. Chair, assisted by the Committee and other Officers, volunteer sectional curators look after the individual areas of the Museum. There are two part-time paid members of staff; a Museum Manager and a Registrar, who look after administration. There are also four part-time paid Museum Assistants who, along with volunteers, greet visitors as they arrive at the front desk.

In accordance with a 1948 High Court Order and ancient tradition, the collections are held ‘in trust for the people of Whitby.’  Residents of Whitby Town parish have the right of free admission.

The Society and its museum are financed by admission fees (of which a proportion are given to Whitby Town Council towards the maintenance of the building), subscriptions paid by the members of the Society, donations and bequests.

In 1991 Whitby Museum was successful in becoming registered with the Museums and Galleries Commission (Registration number 1158). This was renamed as the Accreditation Scheme, now under the auspices of Arts Council England. The Museum successfully became accredited in 2008, 2013, and 2018.

Further Chapters of the Museum