Introduction and history of the museum
The origins of the Wedgwood Museum can be traced to the founder, Josiah Wedgwood I, when he first propounded the concept of the historical collection in a letter to his business partner, Thomas Bentley. He wrote on the 3rd September 1774:
‘I have often wish'd I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, & would now give twenty times the original value for such a collection. For ten years past I have omitted doing this, because I did not begin it ten years sooner. I am now, from thinking, and talking a little more upon this subject ... resolv'd to make a beginning.'
The company of Josiah Wedgwood & Sons were amongst the first ceramic manufacturers to establish a permanent museum. Although individual members of the family from the 18th century onwards had reserved certain wares produced by the company it was not until 1906 that the museum collection was actually formed.
The discovery of a cache of early trials and experimental pieces in a storeroom prompted the company to scour the factory for other pieces of historical interest.
The Museum collection was displayed at the company works at Etruria, until the outbreak of World War II, when in common with so many other collections, it was packed away for safekeeping.
The Wedgwood company moved its production from Etruria to Barlaston in 1940, however, the museum collection was not reopened to the public until 1952 when it was housed in a specially built ‘Long Gallery', named after the virtue of its length, something in excess of 100 yards. It took the form, as the name implies, of a long wide corridor flanked by display windows through which the visitor could view the object. This remained the principal museum gallery until 1975 when the entirely new concept of a visitor centre was introduced.
The purpose-built Visitor Centre complex included an art gallery, museum galleries, a cinema showing short documentary films and a demonstration hall where visitors viewed the skills of the craftsmen and the traditional methods of making ceramics. Within this newly constructed area, 5,500 square feet was set aside to form the new museum galleries. The cases were arranged in chronological order and comprised of three basic units, triangular cases for small objects, long wall cases to illustrate the progression through a particular period and a few floor to ceiling cases to emphasise specific features, such as the reconstruction of a modelling shop, packing crate full of creamware and an 18th century fireplace. The cases were very much in keeping with the 1970s thinking on museums and had their display surfaces covered with textured fabrics in four shades of brown! Each area had related graphics and photographic material mounted behind the actual objects.
With the increasing interest in antiques and public awareness of the Trust's collections it was decided to enlarge and rebuild the Wedgwood Museum's galleries. During the winter months of 1984 construction work was commenced to double the floor space and to create a ‘living museum' concept. The aim was to provide the visitor with the impression not only of the chronological development of the company's history but an idea of the changing concepts in style, form and design. The newly revised historical galleries lead the visitor through two and a quarter centuries, including the invention of ceramic bodies, technical advancements and artistic achievements, with reference wherever possible to their historical context.
For the first time a specially created picture gallery allowed the public to view the collection of celebrated Wedgwood family paintings.
The Museum Trust was gratified to win a certificate of distinction in the ‘Come to Britain' awards organised by the British Tourist Authority. The new museum galleries also won the coveted ‘Industrial and Social History Museum of the Year' in the National Heritage and London Illustrated News competition for 1984.
In September 1999 Josiah Wedgwood & Sons decided to refurbish their visitor attraction, which caused the closure of the historical galleries. The Trust embarked on a major fundraising campaign to create a new ceramic centre of excellence with the building of the new Wedgwood Museum with its extensive display area and major new research facilities. The opening in October 2008 is the culmination of nine years of planning and development.