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Humble start for Launceston's museum and art gallery

Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery has its origins in the Mechanics Institute, later the Launceston Library, which was established 177 years ago.

The very first edition of The Examiner, on March 12, 1842, carried a report on the well-attended public meeting that led to the institute’s creation.

The Reverend John West, who would become the newspaper’s renowned editorial writer, explained it goals as “the promotion of science and the arts, combined with the diffusion of general literature.”

A temporary reading room was secured and then in 1846 the board of the institute obtained land on the corner of St John and Cameron streets with hopes of raising funds for their own building.

In March of 1846 it was also announced that a museum would be established as part of the Mechanics Institute.

It was, however, more than a decade before sufficient funds had been raised for work to start on the Mechanics Institute building.

The foundation stone was laid in June 1857 as fund raising continued to meet the estimated £5370 cost of the building. A government contribution of £3000 helped and the official opening was held on April 10, 1860 (Easter Monday).

The institute hosted public lectures on science and technology as its library grew in popularity and use.

Accumulation of exhibits, specimens and art had started slowly but by the 1880s it was clear the growing collections warranted their own building.

In 1887, the Launceston Municipal Council called for submissions on a design for the proposed museum on the eastern side of what is now Royal Park.

It was decided then that the name of the museum would honour the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria and a foundation stone was laid in June 1887.

The following year plans by architect John Duncan, who had also designed the Albert Hall, were approved and tenders advertised.

The museum was built by J. and T. Gunn and completed in 1890, but the council was reluctant to take possession because the government hadn’t made any provision for the maintenance costs.

When it was eventually opened on April 29, 1891, the building consisted of a gallery to display mineral specimens with an art gallery above. The Launceston City Council assumed ownership in 1905 and has had responsibility for it ever since.

The much-loved Mechanic’s Institute building was demolished in 1971 to make way for the new library.

After nearly 130 years and numerous expansions, and now being located on two sites, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery remains a centre of culture and learning for the citizens of Launceston.

(Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in the Sunday Examiner on 29 September 2019)

Top image: Launceston's Mechanics Institute circa 1867. QVMAG image. Bottom image: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Wellington Street, Launceston, circa 1900. QVMAG image

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