By Jana Funke
The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) is situated in a magnificent Victorian building on Queen Street in the very heart of Exeter. It holds a collection of approximately 1.5 million objects of local, national and international significance and has a lot to offer to any visitor with an interest in natural history, archaeology, art and world cultures.
Exeter’s owes the existence of RAMM to the initiative of Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (1818-1887), a Devon MP and one of the Secretaries for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Shortly after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Northcote started to appeal for funds to finance a memorial museum in Exeter. The new building was designed by architect John Hayward (1807-1891) and constructed over a thirty-year period. When it first opened, RAMM comprised a museum and art gallery, a school of science and art as well as a free public library. Since then, the library has moved into its own building, the school of art is now Plymouth University’s Faculty of Art & Education and the school of science is part of the University of Exeter.
Today, RAMM offers a lively programme of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Many of these feature displays from the natural history collection – one of the largest in the country, covering much of the animal kingdom. Among the most cherished objects is Gerald, the famous bull Maasai giraffe. Before coming to Exeter in 1919, Gerald belonged to the Peel Collection, which was displayed in the private Museum of Natural History and Anthropology in Oxford. It was founded by Charles Victor Alexander Peel (1869-1931), an enthusiastic big game hunter with a passion for natural history. When Peel moved to Devon later in his life, he brought with him his vast collection of taxidermic specimens – including Gerald.
The botany collection comprises thousands of plant specimens. Many of these came to Exeter thanks to horticultural firm Veitch & Sons. Sir Harry James Veitch (1840-1924), who founded the company, grew up in Exeter and is now most famous for promoting the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of 1912, the first Chelsea Flower Show. In addition to his significant art collection, which was donated to RAMM in 1924, RAMM’s plant collection owes much to Veitch. In the nineteenth century, employees of his company would travel the world in search for new plant specimens, which then found their way into the RAMM herbarium. The latter is organised using the Linnaeus’ binomial system, named after Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (1707-1778). Specimens from the herbarium are not generally incorporated in public displays, but special viewings can be arranged with the museum.
From 2001 to 2011, RAMM is undergoing major redevelopment. The museum’s main building on Queen Street, Exeter, Devon, EX4 3RX, will reopen in December 2011. For more information on the museum’s collections, history and redevelopment, go to http://www.rammuseum.org.uk/.
Royal Albert Memorial Museum Website. http://www.rammuseum.org.uk/. (May 2011).